I recently contributed to a scientific article in which our research team at Stanford University turned healthy human tissues into an earlier stage of pancreatic cancer, which carries a dismal 5-year survival rate of 5 percent.
When I described our project to a friend, she asked, “why in the world would you want to grow cancer in the lab?” I explained that by the time that a patient discovers that he has pancreatic cancer, the tumor has usually spread throughout his body. At that point, the patient has less than a year to live and his tumor cells have racked up a number of mutations, making clinical trials and molecular studies of pancreatic cancer evolution downright difficult. For this reason, our laboratory model of pancreatic cancer was available to scientists who wanted to use it to find the biological switches that turn healthy cells into cancer. By sharing our discovery, we wanted to enable others in developing drugs to treat cancer and screening tests to diagnose patients early. In short, science is a team effort that involves lots of time, money, and the brainpower of highly-trained individuals working together toward a single goal.
Many of the challenges we face today—from lifestyle diseases, to the growing strains of antibiotic-resistant superbugs in hospitals, to the looming energy crisis—require scientific facts and solutions. And although there’s never a guarantee of success, scientists persist in hopes that our collective discoveries will reverberate into the future. However, as a corollary, hindering scientific progress means a loss of possibilities.
Unfortunately, the deceleration of scientific progress seems likely possibility. In March, the White House released a document called “America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again,” which details vast cuts to some of America’s most important science funding mechanisms.
As it stands, the National Institutes of Health is set to lose nearly a fifth of its budget; the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, $900 million; and the Environmental Protection Agency, a 31.5 percent budget cut worth $2.6 billion. Imagine the discoveries that could have saved our lives or created jobs, which will instead languish solely as a hypothesis in the heads of underfunded scientists.
Scientists cannot remain idle in the sidelines; we must be active in making the importance of scientific research known. Last weekend’s March on Science drew tens of thousands of people around more than 600 rallies across the world, but the challenge now lies in making sustained efforts to maintain government funding for a wide range of scientific projects.
As it now stands, Americans on both sides of the political spectrum have expressed ambivalence about the validity of scientific findings on matters ranging from climate change to childhood vaccinations. Academics can start tempering the public’s unease toward scientific authority and increase public support for the sciences by stepping off the ivory tower and getting involved in shaping public opinion and policy. Many researchers are already engaging with the public and talking about their research by posting on social media, penning opinion articles, and appearing on platforms aimed at public consumption (Youtube channels, TED, etc).
In addition, many scientists have expressed interest in running for office, including UC Berkeley’s Michael Eisen (who also a co-founder of PLOS). When asked by Science why he was considering a run for senate, Eisen responded:
“My motivation was simple. I’m worried that the basic and critical role of science in policymaking is under a bigger threat than at any point in my lifetime. We have a new administration and portions of Congress that don’t just reject science in a narrow sense, but they reject the fundamental idea that undergirds science: That we need to make observations about the world and make our decisions based on reality, not on what we want it to be. For years science has been under political threat, but this is the first time that the whole notion that science is important for our politics and our country has been under such an obvious threat.”
If scientists can break through the ranks of lawyers and businessmen in legislature, they will be able to inject some scientific sense into the discussions reverberating in the halls of Capitol Hill. Ultimately, a researcher is her own best spokesperson in explaining the importance of her work and the scientific process; unfortunately, a scientist’s role as an educator in the classroom and community is often shoved out by the all-encompassing demand to publish or perish. As a profession, we must become more willing to step out of our laboratories to engage with the public and educate the next generation of science-savvy citizens.
Science is a bipartisan issue that should not be bogged down by the whims of political machinations. We depend on research to address some of the most pressing problems of our time, and America’s greatness lies in part on its leadership in using science as an exploration of physical truths and a means of overcoming our present limitations and challenges.
Check out Yoo Jung’s book aimed at helping college students excel in science, What Every Science Student Should Know (University of Chicago Press)