By MARSHA MERCER
The phrase “money well spent” is not one we automatically associate with the federal government these days. The national mood is sour, people are angry and there’s much to rue about how our tax dollars are spent.
Porky spending is news; money well spent isn’t.
Not surprisingly, the appearance by Dr. Francis S. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, before a House appropriations panel on Wednesday went largely unreported. Most congressional hearings lately have raised my blood pressure; Collins’ testimony renewed my optimism that government can do something right.
First, about Collins: The physician-geneticist grew up on a farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and was home schooled until sixth grade. He received his B.S. degree from the University of Virginia, his Ph.D. from Yale and his M.D. from the University of North Carolina.
He led the government’s effort to map and sequence human DNA at the Human Genome Project, which finished in 2003, 18 months early and $300 million under budget. He’s a born-again Christian whose 2006 book “The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief” was a New York Times bestseller. His new book, “The Language of Life,” is about DNA. President Obama named him NIH director last August.
Part of Collins’ job as NIH director is to make the case on Capitol Hill for money to run his agency. In a time of tight budgets, Obama has requested $32.2 billion – a $1 billion increase -- for NIH for the fiscal year that starts in October.
“Science is not a 100-yard dash. It is a marathon – a marathon run by a relay team that includes researchers, patients, industry experts, lawmakers and the public,” Collins said.
Collins took a long view, outlining the advancements made possible through NIH appropriations and talking about the challenges ahead. Both lists are impressive. I’m summarizing from Collins’ prepared remarks.
Life expectancy in the United States is up dramatically. A baby born today can expect to live 77.7 years, almost three decades longer than one born in 1900. People stay active longer. From 1982 through 2005, the proportion of elderly people with chronic disabilities dropped nearly a third to 19 percent.
The death rates from heart disease and strokes have dropped 60 percent and 70 percent respectively since the World War II era, thanks largely to the ongoing, NIH-funded Framingham Heart Study. It began in the 1940s and has identified disease risk factors and effective drugs.
NIH-funded research into osteoporosis has led to new medications that have reduced the hospitalization rate for hip fractures by 16 percent since 1993. New treatments for macular degeneration, a major cause of vision loss in the elderly, have saved the sight of 750,000 people who would have gone blind over the next five years.
Since the cochlear implant was approved in 2000, more than 25,000 deaf children have received the electronic devices, and many have developed normal language skills.
Collins cited as “one of NIH’s greatest achievements over the past 30 years” its leadership in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
“Today, HIV-infected people in their 20s who receive combination therapy may expect to lie to age 70 or beyond,” he said.
Still ahead, however, are the enormous challenges of cancer, diabetes, obesity, autism and depression.
Collins acknowledged as justified some of criticism that NIH has been slow to convert scientific findings into real-life applications to diagnose, treat and prevent disease. That’s changing as scientists develop greater understanding of diseases, do more research and enter into public-private partnerships to develop drugs, he said.
One American every minute dies of cancer, Collins said. The encouraging news in that dreary statistic is that in the last 15 years cancer death rates have dropped 11 percent among women and 19 percent among men. This translates into some 650,000 lives saved.
Suicide claims the lives of twice as many Americans as homicide, he said, noting that 143 soldiers died by suicide in 2008, the highest rate since the Army began keeping records. NIH and the Army have joined for the largest study ever of suicide and mental health in the military.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of better uses for my tax dollars. Biomedical research at NIH meets my definition of money well spent.
© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.