UMass Medical School in Worcester. Credit: Wikimedia.
By any measure, it was a remarkable discovery.
Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester announced they’d found a way to shut down the extra chromosome that causes the developmental problems found in people diagnosed with Down syndrome.
With federal and state budgets tight, university research funding has been increasingly hard to find in the U.S, and that doesn’t come without consequences. Higher education advocates are pointing to UMass Medical's striking scientific breakthrough as an example of why the government ought to keep investing in research.
UMass Medical School professor Dr. Jeanne Lawrence was the scientist behind the research that made the discovery. She said the project was high risk, high impact work.
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For one, there was always the threat of technical issues. She was working with human cells grown in laboratory dishes. Still, her team was able to suppress the extra chromosome that causes intellectual disabilities, dropping jaws throughout the scientific community and providing parents of those with Down syndrome with a glimmer of hope.
It was all supported with three grants from the National Institutes of Health, an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In Washington, though, some lawmakers want to reduce federal spending on any scientific research unless it promotes national security or economic development, putting what they believe are high-risk, non-essential projects in jeopardy.
On the Senate floor in March, Republican Senator Tom Coburn, of Oklahoma, sought to slash even more money shortly after across-the-board federal spending cuts went into effect. Coburn and his supporters succeeded, in part, when they targeted social sciences and Congress voted to cut funding for any political science research.
Economist and higher education consultant Bill Massy said there are too many political leaders like Coburn who do not understand the full potential of scientific research.
“If we really did a good job of imparting serious understanding of science in most - if not all - undergraduates, we’d be having a much easier time, we’re playing catch up now,” he said.
As vice provost for research at Stanford in the 1970s, one of Massy’s jobs was to secure funding for all kinds of research. Then, as now, the federal government was the crucial player when it came to funding natural and social science.
“In terms of the magnitude of the dollars, there’s just no other player out there that can reach that kind of critical mass," he said.
Massy argued that the U.S. needs to reinvest in research to remain competitive with China and India, Qatar, and Singapore- all of which are making huge investments in their higher ed systems.
The National Institutes of Health funds only one in 20 of the grants it receives. That scarcity of funding concerns Dr. Terence Flotte, the dean of the UMass School of Medicine.
“That kind of conservative approach will hamper us from being innovative in the near term,” he said.
Flotte said across-the-board federal spending cuts threaten to choke off future academic research and to lose the next generation of young scientists.
“You can’t just repopulate a bio-medical science research community overnight," he said. "People are driven out of research, and the people with those talents or go into other fields and they don’t come back.
How vital is federal spending in higher ed? At UMass Medical School, the government provides 85 percent of its research funding.
“It is the lifeblood to our research,” he said.
Flotte said the U.S. is at risk of blocking the flow of its best brain power, at a time when this kind of research could yield more and more dividends.