Thoughts from the Dean

In Defense of Science

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April 26, 2017
In Defense of Science

The following is the text of a speech given at the Harvard Medical School March for Science rally on April 22, 2017.

In the 1920s, a Soviet agronomist by the name of Trofim Lysenko rose to prominence with his experiments on wheat crops. His teachings rejected Mendelian genetics.

An exquisite manipulator, Lysenko cozied up to Josef Stalin, gained political influence and launched a sustained campaign against mainstream science.

Lysenko’s pseudoscientific doctrines endured until the 1960s.

During that time, critical voices were muzzled, dissenters intimidated and many prominent scientists imprisoned or sent to labor camps. This had a decades-long paralyzing effect on scientific research in the Soviet Union.

The rise and virulence of Lysenkoism is a cautionary tale, a painfully telling lesson from history, one that humanity seems doomed to forget.

Yes, history can be prologue. Over the last few decades, a far more subtle but no less dangerous form of demagoguery has gained momentum in our country as “merchants of doubt” sow seeds of uncertainty about everything from vaccine safety, to evolution, to climate change.

Clearly, the United States is not Stalinist Russia. But the distortion of facts, the propagation of alternative truths and “fake news” are all favorite tactics from the playbooks of special interests and ideologues everywhere.

Pseudoscience threatens to undermine the scientific method as a means of discovering truths about the world we live in.

It threatens the intellectual traditions that emerged in the Enlightenment and that have shielded us from the cognitive biases that are hard-wired into our human minds.

You see, science is a rigorous way of thinking, a way of interpreting the world that protects us against the basic human tendency to misinterpret, to misinterpret correlation as causation, to jump to conclusions because our “gut” tells us to.

Science is a way of thinking that favors evidence over anecdote. Science elevates reason over intuition. And the value of adhering to evidence-based thinking is paramount, whether you’re a scientist or a winemaker, a farmer or a politician.

And this scientific way of thinking is under attack today.

Make no mistake—just like a slow-growing but ultimately malignant cancer— the metastasizing doubt of science will lead to harmful decisions and reckless policies.

The attack on science is the result of a schism in our society that is more fundamental and far deeper than any political divide. The attack on science is a rift that signifies a dangerously widening chasm between critical thinking and rigid ideology.

One of the most dangerous and most egregious consequences of this rift: the looming cuts in NIH funding.

As it stands, the proposal to slash nearly one-fifth of the NIH budget will be devastating to American biomedicine. It will set in motion a chain reaction that threatens the entire biomedical research enterprise.

The human toll of these cuts will be immediately devastating here in the Boston area, but I fear the effects over the long term that could haunt us for generations to come.

These cuts will destabilize the economy and essentially eliminate a generation of young scientists.

Cuts of this magnitude pose an existential threat to America’s preeminence as a world leader in biomedicine.

If you are taking a pill to control heart failure or a drug to keep HIV infection at bay, you are the beneficiary of therapies sparked by federal investment in science.

Chances are your drug originated with work done somewhere on an academic campus, in a cluttered lab, just like the ones sprinkled across Longwood.  These academic labs that study the fundamentals of life spark therapies we now take for granted, therapies that keep us healthy and alive.

Millions of Americans, and billions of people around the world, are alive today because of life-saving, life-sustaining and life-altering treatments that emerged from this curiosity-driven research—the very research that will be most severely affected by the proposed cuts.

NIH-funded research has fueled the discovery of 153 FDA-approved drugs, vaccines and new indications for older drugs over the past 40 years. These include treatments for leukemia, breast cancer, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and vaccines against hepatitis B, HPV and Ebola, and countless others.

Loss of federal research dollars will have seismic effects on the economy.

With an annual budget of nearly $32 billion, the NIH is the world’s biggest funder of biomedical discovery. The NIH is the motor that propels progress not only in the United States, but around the world.

In Massachusetts alone, NIH funding directly supports more than 31,000 jobs. But the ripple effects of these cuts will be far greater. This is because companies leverage academic discoveries to develop medications that save countless lives.

In our state alone, NIH research sparks vibrant economic activity that tops $6 billion a year.

Across the country, NIH funding supports nearly 380,000 jobs and fuels economic activity to the tune of $65 billion per year.

The benefits of NIH funding are not limited to the location of the institution that receives a grant. Work done here, in Boston, is affecting the lives of millions across the country, and around the world.

To bring this issue home to HMS, nearly half of new cancer drugs approved by the FDA in the last five years stemmed from NIH-supported research done by scientists within the Harvard community. Let me repeat this—nearly half of all new cancer drugs approved in the last five years emanated from research here at Harvard. These drugs are now benefiting people across the country and around the globe.

Think about it: Research that revealed how cancer evades immune system surveillance done by our very own Arlene Sharpe and Gordon Freeman sparked a whole new field in cancer therapy. Their work was possible because of NIH grants.

And keep in mind, for every dollar the NIH invests, medical schools invest another 53 cents.

The looming cuts extend beyond biomedicine. The EPA may lose a third of its budget. This will sap the strength from efforts to document and reduce global climate change. It will defang the agency’s ability to go after polluters, clean up hazardous chemical spills and deal with radioactive disasters. These cuts will harm the health of our planet. The effects on human health will be far swifter.

As an American, I am outraged. As a physician, I am terrified of what humanity will suffer in the future because of the problematic policies being considered today.

The loss of research funding will have serious geopolitical ramifications because NIH supports international work that allows scientists to respond rapidly to brewing epidemics and to conduct infectious disease surveillance.

Diseases like Ebola, SARS, HIV and the flu know no borders. Such international work is absolutely critical to the health and stability of our global community.
Retreating from our commitment to scientific inquiry would be morally reckless. It would be fiscally irresponsible. It would also be an affront to our American ideals and to our humanistic values. 

Scientific progress and discovery are an enduring symbol of what’s best and most noble about this great nation and about our relentless pursuit of knowledge for the betterment of humanity.

Cutting biomedical research funding will eviscerate our ability to alleviate suffering here and around the world. It threatens the very core of our mission as an academic institution.

With breathtaking advances in gene editing, synthetic biology and tissue engineering, we’re on the cusp of developing therapies that will allow us to grow healthy cells and organs from our own cells and use them to treat intractable diseases. Think pancreatic beta-cell replacement for people with diabetes. Think gene editing for people with sickle cell disease.

Over the last century, science has made some diseases curable, some even forgotten. It has made other diseases treatable.

What will science give us in the next 100 years? What is our next frontier?

If our nation stops investing in science, we will never know. We will never know what might have been possible.

Imagine never developing insulin.

Imagine a world without the polio vaccine—or antibiotics.

What are the “insulin” therapies of tomorrow that will never be?

What is the disease we’ll never get a chance to cure?

The sheer tragedy of never knowing is unthinkable.

This is a fight for our very future.

Standing up for science is our calling.

Adapted from a speech delivered by George Daley on the HMS Quad on April 22, 2017.