New Administration, Congress Return Science to the Front Burner

By Richard L. McCormick, President
As submitted; published in the Bergen Record on May 28, 2009

When a Russian émigré named Selman Waksman arrived on the Rutgers campus nearly a century ago, no one could have predicted that his scientific research would one day save countless lives across the globe.

Working at Rutgers’ College of Agriculture, Waksman and his fellow microbiologists spent nearly three decades analyzing soil microbes before they isolated and identified the antibiotic streptomycin in 1943, which helped whole communities combat the scourge of tuberculosis during the 20th century.

Their discovery, which led to a Nobel Prize for Waksman in 1952, is a testament to the real-world benefits that result from painstaking scientific inquiry.

Just as important, their discovery would not have been possible without support from the federal government. The College of Agriculture, now known as Rutgers’ School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, was founded in 1864 under the federal land-grant program, which enabled states to sell public lands and use the proceeds to expand significantly public higher education and research.

Waksman’s research is but one example that underscores why this nation’s commitment to independent scientific inquiry is so vital to our future—and why we cannot afford to let that commitment atrophy again.

In his first 100 days in office, President Obama and congressional leaders have taken a series of steps that, in the president’s words, will “restore science to its rightful place.” Their actions include increased federal funding for scientific research and appointing Nobel laureates to key leadership positions.

On March 9—the day he signed an executive order lifting restrictions on stem-cell research and a presidential memorandum restoring “scientific integrity to government decision-making”—President Obama commented:

“Promoting science isn’t just about providing resources—it is also about protecting free and open inquiry. It is about letting scientists … do their jobs, free from manipulation or coercion. … It is about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda—and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology.”

To appreciate the practical value of federally supported scientific inquiry, one need look no further than the excellent work being done at this nation’s research universities.

Here at Rutgers, more than 60 years after the groundbreaking research by Waksman and his colleagues, a new team of scientists led by professors Richard H. Ebright and Eddy Arnold has identified a potential approach to defeat emerging, more virulent strains of tuberculosis.

This is just one of many ways that federally funded Rutgers research is making a difference across New Jersey, the nation, and the world. Here are three more examples.

The Rutgers University Cell and DNA Repository is a key resource for biomedical researchers worldwide who are seeking treatments and cures for such common, complex diseases as autism, alcoholism, Alzheimer’s, bipolar disorder, diabetes, drug abuse, and schizophrenia. Under the scientific leadership of Rutgers geneticist Jay Tischfield, the repository receives more than $20 million annually from the National Institutes of Health and private foundations.

Highway and bridge safety are vital concerns for all New Jerseyans. Researchers at the Rutgers Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation, funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation and other state and federal agencies, are developing highway materials that are making roads safer and more durable. Their research has already led to new forms of pavement that cut down on skidding in bad weather—leading to fewer traffic accidents. This Rutgers center is also spearheading a five-year, up to $25.5 million federal initiative to improve the long-term performance of our nation’s bridges.

New Jersey is one of the country’s leading producers of cranberries. Federally funded cranberry research has helped Rutgers scientists learn how this popular fruit can prevent infection and promote better health. It also has led to new hybrids that improve farming efficiency and yield more fruit than traditional varieties—as much as 40 percent higher yields compared to earlier hybrids that date back to the 1940s.

Sadly, we have no way of knowing how many more breakthroughs would have been possible had the federal government’s commitment to science been stronger over the past decade.

Independent scientific inquiry should remain robust, regardless of who is in power. The next generation of Waksmans must be permitted to pursue knowledge wherever it leads.

Of course, no one can foresee how today’s research might benefit humanity 10, 20, or 100 years from now. But one thing is clear: The future of scientific research should not depend on the latest election returns.