Ebola and the value of research

If you've been following news of the Ebola outbreak, you may have heard Wayne State University mentioned in the coverage. Dr. Craig Spencer, a graduate of Wayne State University's School of Medicine and a member of Doctors Without Borders, was diagnosed with Ebola and is being treated in a New York City medical facility. Dr. Spencer's dedication to helping others - even at risk to himself - is a model of the selflessness shown by Wayne State graduates in many fields, and we hope and pray for his prompt recovery.

You may also have noticed the debate about the timeliness of the National Institutes of Health's (NIH) efforts to develop a vaccine. Francis Collins, director of the NIH, has stated that declining research funding was partly responsible for the delay.

"Frankly, if we had not gone through our 10-year slide in research support, we probably would have had a vaccine in time for this that would've gone through clinical trials and would have been ready," Collins said.

Some have taken exception to this, stating that the NIH has plenty of funding, but allows too much of that funding to pay for frivolous and wasteful research.

Data show that the NIH's funding has remained static amid rising costs over the past decade, and the budget for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the subdivision of NIH that would have been most involved with Ebola research, has actually declined. I won't try to arbitrate this specific dispute. But I think it's important, especially considering our status as a major research university, to provide a perspective on the comment about wasteful research.

In my view, funding for scientific research must be determined through a peer-review process and not a political one. NIH's peer-review process for funding research is a model for the world, and the best science ultimately gets funded through this process. In hundreds of ways, we benefit from the many types of research performed by NIH-funded investigators each and every day. Some research, particularly basic science research, does not often lead to an immediate benefit, but it forms the foundation upon which life-saving and other important discoveries are based.

In fact, this is so well understood by researchers that there is an award for just such a situation. It's called the Golden Goose Award, and it recognizes "seemingly obscure studies that have led to major breakthroughs and resulted in significant societal impact." For example, one recent study that involved massaging rats led to a treatment for premature babies that has saved thousands of lives and billions of dollars in health care costs. This is just the kind of study that initially might have elicited a smirk, and perhaps even a disparaging comment, from people who judge the value of research projects by their titles rather than the underlying fundamental science.

We live in a political world, and sometimes politics can obscure scientific rationality. We can't change that, but we can continue to expand upon the frontiers of new knowledge through innovative research of all kinds. We also can salute and appreciate the people who dedicate their lives to the pursuit of new discoveries, many of which are not immediately translated to tangible benefits to society. You might even get the opportunity to do this personally, as we have quite a few of them working right here on our campus.

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