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The Law of Unintended Consequences

The death of Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania on 14 October, at the age of 82, has occasioned widespread mourning in the biomedical community, as our colleague Jocelyn Kaiser notes on our sister blog.  “I am greatly saddened by the death of [this] towering champion of biomedical research and of the mission of the National Institutes of Health (NIH),” says NIH director Francis F. Collins in a statement that doubtlessly expresses the views of many fellow scientists.

Specter was “a tireless proponent of increasing the NIH budget,” Kaiser writes, and a highly successful one, too.  He was, for example, instrumental in two of the biggest boosts that that budget has ever seen. Together with Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), he pushed through the doubling of the NIH budget between 1998 and 2003.  Then, essentially on his own, Specter landed a $10 billion bonanza for NIH as part of President Obama’s 2009 stimulus package.

And yet: One of the strongest of the laws apparently ruling our
nation’s government is the law of unintended consequences, which decrees
that even the best-intentioned legislation can produce effects that its
framers neither foresee nor desire.  Unfortunately, such effects befell
some of the legislation that Sen. Specter championed. 

The longstanding, unwavering, and effective devotion to the cause of
biomedical science that these efforts reflect did not arise from policy
considerations alone.  Having himself survived a brain tumor, heart
disease, and Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Sen. Specter felt personal gratitude
for the research that made his lifesaving treatments possible, and he
worked effectively over the years to extend those benefits ever more
widely.  His deep and sincere dedication to this cause resulted in
legislation that improved the lives of countless patients.

However, as labor economists and others have observed, reliable, predictable growth
in funding is much more conducive to the long-term growth and welfare of
the scientific labor
force than large, sudden infusions.  In fact, in the report that, nearly
70 years ago, established the framework for
the nation’s federally funded research enterprise,
Presidential adviser Vannevar Bush
named steady, predictable, gradually growing funding as one of the most
important principles that should guide support for U.S. research, in
part because it would encourage productive
scientific careers.   Unfortunately Congress has never followed that
recommendation, despite adopting much else of what
Bush advised. Our system of governing and budgeting doesn’t lend itself
to long-term planning; the best option available to lawmakers seeking to
increase research funding has generally been to do so in short,
disruptive, bursts.

Knowledgeable observers agree, for example, that the boom-or-bust funding that characterized the doubling and the ARRA stimulus
encouraged universities and laboratories to take on large numbers of
graduate students, postdocs, and temporarily funded investigators.  Many
of these scientists–large numbers of them young,
but some more established–found themselves stranded without
funding and in a severely glutted academic job market when funding
flattened out and then declined.  Success rates for grant proposals fell
historic lows. Numerous labs–some of them built by the surge of NIH
money–were forced to close, stalling or ending careers.        

the means and opportunities available to him, Sen. Specter worked
relentlessly to benefit the
nation’s research effort, and, through it, the lives of Americans and
people everywhere. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if lawmakers who wish to
and extend that admirable effort finally embraced the Vannevar Bush’s
advice?  What if Congress were to put in place a system that assured
steadily increasing funding for science over the long term, so as to
avoid disruptive shocks to the system? Whatever great legislator manages
to achieve that will, I believe, build a legacy for supporting research
that will outshine and outlast even Senator Specter’s.

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