By Tom Still
– Yoshi Kawaoka is known worldwide for his work on avian influenza viruses, the
likes of which wiped out 40 million people in 1918. This talented UW-Madison
researcher has also spent time studying strains of the Ebola virus, which has
now found its way to the United States from West Africa, where thousands have
died from its devastating effects.
is, Kawaoka’s Ebola research is largely in the past tense because federal
funding for the project ran out just as some promising results were reported.
a close-to-home example of how stagnant and even dwindling federal support for
academic research – especially in the life sciences – can hamper society’s
ability to address public health challenges.
in late August at a meeting of the Wisconsin Innovation Network in Madison,
Kawaoka said he and his team had created a potential Ebola vaccine by
extracting the gene that tells the active virus to multiply. Several promising tests
were conducted with non-human primates. The experiments demonstrated the vaccine,
when administered in two doses, is effective even against the most deadly Ebola
when the money ran out. Although some work continues in secured laboratories,
Kawaoka could not proceed with tests to determine whether the vaccine regimen
might work with humans. He described his case as an example of what can happen
if federal dollars for research conducted at major universities continues down
a start-and-stop path.
surge in federal support for academic research and development that began at
the dawn of the Space Age and accelerated in the 1990s and 2000s has slowed in
recent years – and actually declined in 2012 for the first time since records
were kept. The National Science Foundation has tracked academic R&D
spending from all sources since 1953, and 2012 is the latest year for which
complete records are available.
increases in some years were smaller than others, Congress and the White House
have generally viewed federal R&D investments as a bipartisan, national
imperative. The support for such research has expanded in good times and bad,
weathering recessions and conflict abroad.
has federal investment in academic R&D been a priority over the years?
Because money spent on research has been viewed as intellectual “seed corn”
that can be planted throughout the economy, helping to launch new ideas and
companies while enhancing the public good.
the decline in such investment is not only apparent in academic R&D
spending by the federal government but in what Washington spends on its own research
programs in agencies such as the National Institutes for Health, the NSF and 39
federal research centers.
this year, the head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science
called the recent trend in federal support for R&D “nothing short of
Leshner, chief executive officer of AAAS and executive publisher of Science,
noted that federal R&D spending had declined by 15 percent since 2010.
While acknowledging the need for balanced spending cuts in tight fiscal times, Leshner
added: “Sadly, most of the solutions seem to be offered up on the discretionary
side of the budget.”
trend is worrisome for leaders in some of Wisconsin’s leading research
institutions, which starts with the UW-Madison. In 2012, according to the NSF,
UW-Madison ranked third among all U.S. universities in total academic R&D
spending at $1.170 billion. Half of that investment ($581 million) came from
mix of federal R&D dollars was roughly the same at the Medical College of
Wisconsin ($207 million in total spending, $125 million from federal sources)
and the UW-Milwaukee ($62 million and $29 million).
research dollars are an investment in our nation’s economic future,” UW-Madison
Chancellor Rebecca Blank wrote recently. “Cutting these dollars in the
short-run may seem easy, but the long-term effects are large and negative… If
federal support for basic research declines, our opportunities for economic
growth through innovation will decline.”
universities always spent federal R&D dollars in the most efficient way?
No, but with private industry conducting less free-standing research and
engaging in more in partnerships with universities, the prospects for more
results-driven work are improved.
a vaccine for Ebola or another threat to public health just around the corner?
We may never know if the money to help find the answers is never spent.