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Judy Woodruff: Research, Health and the Spending Debate — Part One

For all their efforts, movie stars/Oscar hosts Anne Hathaway and James Franco weren’t enough to lift the TV viewing audience for the Academy Awards this year over what they were in 2010. An average of 37 million Americans watched, versus 41 million last year. Still, that’s a respectable number for prime time.

It was an eager, but far smaller audience – of about 500 – who gathered in Washington last night to watch the presentation of awards for work that may arguably have more lasting impact than that of any one of this year’s Oscar winners. Yes, movies can have a profound effect on our understanding of history, human nature, and the world around us, not to mention the personal enjoyment they bring. On the other hand, these awards Tuesday night were to recognize advocates of research in health and medicine, work that has the potential both to help us live longer and to improve the quality of our lives.

The awards have been given every year since 1997 by Research!America, but organizers said they took on a new meaning this year, because of the pressures to cut federal funding in the face of growing budget deficits and the overall national debt.

Research!America describes itself as the nation’s “largest nonprofit public education and advocacy alliance working to make research to improve health a higher national priority,” and full disclosure: I served formerly on its board of directors. What struck me last night was the passion in the voice of some of the recipients, who included New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg; Col. Jamie Grimes, national director of The Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center; medical device inventor Dean Kamen; PBS host Charlie Rose; Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin of Illinois; and Nobel prize winner Dr. J. Michael Bishop.

Bloomberg was recognized for promoting public health and prevention research, through his contributions to scholarly work at The Johns Hopkins University, and his multiple initiatives as mayor to ban smoking, keep guns off the streets and improve access to healthy foods. Durbin was cited for his “determined, long-standing commitment to medical research.” And Rose for his “in-depth coverage of research-related issues.”

All spoke eloquently about the importance of advocating for science, with Durbin making an appeal against funding cuts recommended by Republicans in the House of Representatives. “I have little in common with Britain’s David Cameron,” Durbin noted in his brief remarks. But he embraced the conservative British prime minister’s stance against spending reductions in medical research. Quoting Cameron, Durbin said: “No cuts that cost lives.”

For their part, Republicans in the House have argued the debt crisis facing the country is so dire, that nothing can be immune as Congress looks for ways to save taxpayer dollars and put the nation back on a sound fiscal footing.

The words that rang especially poignant during the ceremony were those of Michael Bishop, who received the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1989 with his longtime collaborator Dr. Harold Varmus, for their groundbreaking work on the genetic basis of cancer. Dr. Bishop, now 75, went on to author hundreds of publications in biomedical research and co-authored an important paper in 1993 that cited limited financial resources as a key factor in slowing research productivity.

Last night, he described himself as “in the twilight of my career,” and to a hushed audience, said if he “had it to do over again,” he would “spend more time talking to members of Congress, to elected officials, to public policy makers, and writing opinion columns,” doing whatever he could to get the word out about the importance of supporting medical research. The work itself is important, but “to educate” the public about its value is huge, he told the crowd.

In these days when the fiscal bottom line is on just about everyone’s mind in Washington, it was a thought-provoking statement. But there’s another side to this story. So I plan to write more next week about the argument from the other side: the need to cut spending, including for areas like medical research.

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