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Thu, Nov 13

Why scientists make promises they can’t keep

Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, recently made people angry when he linked budget cuts to the slow progress on an Ebola vaccine. Without the decade-long erosion of the NIH budget, he told Sam Stein of the Huffington Post, “we would have been a year or two ahead of where we are, which would have made all the difference.” The push-back was immediate. Collins’ claim was dissected by the media and countered by one of Collins’ own colleagues, the head of the NIH unit that oversees Ebola research. Many other scientists disagreed as well. University of California-Berkeley biologist Michael Eisen called Collins’ comments “complete bullshit.”

Why such an angry response? After all, it’s undeniably true that the NIH budget has been ailing for a decade. The NIH’s purchasing power has dropped by as much as 21 percent since 2004, a consequence of inflation and flat or shrinking appropriations by Congress. Research, including Ebola research, has inevitably been scaled back.

Most critics expressed some version of the argument made by Eisen: “It is a gross overtrivialization of even the directed scientific process involved in developing vaccines to suggest that simply by spending more money on something you are guaranteed a product. And, if I were in Congress, frankly I’d be sick of hearing this kind of baloney, and would respond with a long list of things I’d been promised by previous NIH directors if only we’d spend more money on them.” In other words, you can’t simply buy the scientific results you want.

Read more from The Week.