Science in the stimulus package

    Congress proposes billions for federal research as an economic booster.

    Congress continues work this week to refine its stimulus package. In it are myriad economic boosters, including billions of dollars for health and science research. The scientific community says the money is a long time coming; others say it’s completely inappropriate. From WHYY’s health and science desk, Kerry Grens reports.

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    John Trojanowski is a lanky, talkative brain disease researcher. He’s best known for identifying proteins in Alzheimer’s. Two years ago, his team found another protein, with the seemingly benign name of TDP-43.

    Trojanowski: The discovery opened up a whole new area of research on amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and frontotemporal lobar degeneration.

    Those are two devastating neurological diseases. We would call them Lou Gehrig’s disease and a form of dementia. Immediately researchers began hounding this new protein for clues and cures, and Trojanowski wrote a grant to the National Institutes of Health for money.

    Trojanowski: The grant did not succeed on its first submission, just about a year ago.

    Even though the grant received a worthy grade — one that would have gotten it funded a few years ago. So Trojanowski is trying again, sending another application in this month. His situation is common among thousands of academic researchers who grew accustomed to the funding heyday of the late 90s and early 2000s. The NIH budget doubled over that time, resulting in a huge influx of research. But since then, the funding has been stagnant.

    Bordogna: So that’s the big purpose here in the stimulus package, is you’re funding new ideas that are lying fallow right now because the resources aren’t there.

    Joseph Bordogna was deputy director of the National Science Foundation for nearly a decade. He says he is pleased to see the stimulus package including billions of dollars for science. In addition to more than a billion going to the National Science Foundation, an amendment from Senator Arlen Specter adds ten billion to the National Institutes of Health. Mary Woolley, president of the science advocacy group Research America, says the investment will have a significant impact on the U-S economy.

    Woolley: That 10 billion dollars could result in the creation of over 70,000 jobs over the next immediate several months up to two years.

    Woolley says that a government investment also supports the private sector by doing the initial research that biotech and pharmaceutical companies then use in making consumer products. Leslie Paige is the spokesperson for Citizens Against Government Waste. She says science budgets are not in an emergency situation. And they don’t belong in the stimulus package.

    Paige: There has to be some sort of public vetting of all this. Not everything they do is something everyone accepts and would support. It really does need to go through a kind of cooling off, deliberative process where everyone has a chance to weigh in on it.

    As the House and Senate continue tweaking the stimulus bill, science might get excised from the list of beneficiaries. But federal research is bound to get a boost anyway. Not only has president Obama promised to “restore science to its rightful place,” but former president Bush also signed a bill in 2007 to double research spending over the next few years.

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