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By Martin BridgeThe National Institutes of Health, the biggest sponsor of biomedical research in this country, recently saw its budget double over a period of roughly five years. During the same period, the National Science Foundation and the Office of Science of the Department of Energy budgets remained relatively flat, continuing a trend of stagnant or declining budgets that extends back for decades.
This has led to the argument, coming from both physical scientists and some biological scientists as well, that the Federal research portfolio has gone out of balance, favoring the life sciences while the physical sciences have fallen behind. Advocates for more funding for the NSF and the Office of Science point out that many medical advances depend on underlying research in physics and related sciences.
Meanwhile, in the wake of 9/11, the federal government has established the Department of Homeland Security, and boosted antiterrorism funding across the board. We have all experienced the results at airports, and in the much stricter visa processes that have impeded foreign students and researchers alike from entering the country. But as the nation continues to work hard to improve its security, one of the components of the war on terror is a substantial budget for research, and both universities and government labs are being offered a variety of opportunities to participate in the effort.
One might expect that the research program would be structured in a way that matches the perceived threats. A whole spectrum of potential dangers must be combated, but these should be weighted by what is known about terrorist activities and capabilities. There is essentially no evidence that any terrorist organization is engaged in developing biological weapons, and yet the lion' s share of American anti- terrorism research money is going to bio-defense.
It's as if the funding is tracking the pre-existing research establishment, instead of the job that actually needs to be done. It reminds one of the old story about the man looking for his keys under the lamppost because the light was better there, even though he lost them somewhere else.
According to data published by Ari Schuler last fall in Vol. 2, no. 2, of Biosecurity and Bioterrorism, since 9/11, $14 billion has been spent on bio-defense, of which more than $4 billion was for research. In FY05, more than $2 billion will be spent on research. Most of the research funding, $1.7 billion, goes to NIH, with a lesser amount, $363 million, to DHS. The amount DHS spends on bio-defense research exceeds its expenditures in any other research area by a wide margin.
In December, David Kestenbaum of NPR did a piece examining whether all that money is being well spent. One of his guests was Milton Leitenberg of the University of Maryland, author of the book The Problem of Biological Weapons, who emphasized the lack of meaningful threat assessment, which he defined as "establish[ing] for such and such a group, what does it have, who does it have, what can they do?". He called the level of funding "very out of whack," and said that instead of genuine threat assessment, there has been "fear mongering" that "gets to the point of hucksterism."
Another guest on the program, Jonathan Tucker of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, pointed out that certain kinds of research on biological weapons can actually be counterproductive. In the October issue of Arms Control Today he writes: ". the novel pathogens and related know-how generated by threat-assessment work could be stolen or diverted for malicious purposes, exacerbating the threat of bioterrorism." In fact, the leading explanation for the anthrax mailings that killed five people in the fall of 2001 is that they were carried out by someone who had inside knowledge of the US biological weapons program.
Defending the need for bio-defense research at DHS was Parney Albright, Assistant Secretary for plans, programs and budget. "Imagine if we got an attack of aerosolized anthrax on a major city," he said, "or somebody came out with smallpox and our response was 'Well, we just didn't want to work on it.' That, I think, is an answer the American public would not accept."
True enough. But if, as seems much more probable, America were to be attacked by some kind of explosive, whether it be a car bomb, a suicide bomber, an airplane used as a guided missile, or a dirty radioactive bomb [see the Back Page, APS News March 2004], the public may be equally outraged to find out that we were spending our resources so disproportionately. No one is saying we should discontinue research on bio-defense. But the imbalance that afflicts the overall research portfolio is even more severe in the realm of counter-terrorism. The welfare not only of the scientific community, but that of the entire nation, depends on setting it right.
Martin Bridge is a frequent contributor to APS News.
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