What Is a (Big) Bird in the Hand Worth?

by Suzanne M. Rivera, Ph.D.

The Presidential debate on Wednesday was fascinating theater.  Much of the post-debate commentary in social media has focused on Mitt Romney’s threat to cut federal funding to PBS as a way of reducing the deficit (save Big Bird!) and President Obama’s unexpected restraint (including this piece of NSFW satire from The Onion).

I love Big Bird as much as the next child of the Sesame Street generation, but I’m even more concerned about something else.

Very little attention has been paid to the fact that neither candidate said much about science.  Because I was listening closely for any reference to research or innovation in medicine and healthcare, I can tell you this: the closest either candidate came to making a claim in this area was President Obama who (I think) intended to say something like, ‘Cuts to basic science and research would be a mistake.’

If only he had been that direct, the nation might have understood more clearly the importance of federal support for research.  What he actually said was this: “And that kind of approach [i.e., of cutting the federal budget], I believe, will not grow our economy, because the only way to pay for it without either burdening the middle class or blowing up our deficit is to make drastic cuts in things like education, making sure that we are continuing to invest in basic science and research, all the things that are helping America grow. And I think that would be a mistake.”

The mistake to which the President refers is not just in cutting research; it’s also in thinking that cutting research will save money.  Sure we can save money short term by cutting research funding, thus getting a “bird in the hand” of saved dollars.   However, only through continued investments in science will we be able to create the new treatment, diagnostic, and prevention paradigms that will improve human health and realize costs savings—a proverbial “two in the bush” that will justify taking the long view.

U.S. universities, academic medical centers, and reputable scientific organizations are anxious about keeping their research and medical training programs alive in the face of flat or declining federal funding levels.  Contracting budgets will certainly slow progress at a time when our healthcare costs are skyrocketing.  As Baby Boomers move into the medical realities of old age, voters—and the candidates—should be at least as concerned about science as they are about oversized muppets.

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