Science Careers Blog

October 16, 2012

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 to historic lows. Numerous labs--some of them built by the surge of NIH money--were forced to close, stalling or ending careers.        

Using 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 continue 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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