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Federal funding for basic research led to the gene-editing revolution. Don’t cut it.

Patients in red states and blue states alike benefit from work funded by the National Institutes of Health

DNA helix Getty

Labs across our country are a source of American optimism — advancing knowledge, technologies, and cures. And yet, as citizens in 500 cities worldwide prepare to march this weekend in support of science, many American scientific practitioners are afraid. They worry that American science as we know it would be hobbled if President Trump’s proposed 18 percent cut to the National Institutes of Health, America’s premier medical research funder, becomes reality.

We hope Congress will hear history’s call and re-assert American leadership in advancing humanity’s scientific knowledge.

Call us naïve, but we believe — as an immunologist and biochemist attempting to perfect and deploy gene-editing advances to cure disease — that Democrats and Republicans alike can be united by a shared drive for scientific exploration and life-saving discoveries.

Science is not the property of any political party or region of the country. In red states and blues states, daughters and sons ask their first scientific questions when they come to us and wonder how the human body grows, how genes are inherited, and how a medicine works. Over the past century, American political leaders have encouraged young people to ask these fundamental questions, invested in their training to become scientists, and given them tools to translate questions into innovation.

The rewards of breakthroughs are felt most acutely when our families experience illness. Many of us know the pain of a loved one discovering a lump that turns out to be cancer or showing signs of neurological decline. In these moments, whatever our politics, we all hope to reach for the most powerful medicines, which continue to result from the relentless pursuit of scientific knowledge.

Gene editing will lead to major breakthroughs in combating disease

As we write, biomedical progress is accelerating, changing how we understand and fight disease. One example is CRISPR, a tool that can edit specific sequences in human DNA, which one of us helped invent and the other uses in research to understand and control the human immune system. Targeted at the building blocks of life, CRISPR could induce immune cells to fight disease or neutralize predisposition to one.

The combination of CRISPR and new therapies has raised hopes for a new generation of powerful cancer treatments. Across the US, our colleagues are teaming up and racing to apply similar approaches to dementia, heart disease, and countless other conditions.

A growing number of Americans have heard of CRISPR and its medical potential. Far fewer realize that the transformative applications of CRISPR genome editing would never have occurred without robust funding for basic scientific research. Inquiry into unusual genes in unglamorous bacteria before we even knew the gene-altering power they contained, laid the foundation for CRISPR technology. Now that same technology is driving a revolution in biomedicine and rapidly advancing towards clinical trials.

We certainly have not charted the breadth of microorganisms that will inspire the invention of future drugs, nor fathomed the full complexity of the inner workings of human cells. That’s the work of basic scientific research. The next revolution in biology is currently an idea in a scientist’s head, or being hashed out in a late night lab conversation among graduate students, or sitting in a grant application to the NIH asking for a chance.

Our research represents just a sliver of the vital projects that more than 300,000 researchers are undertaking in 50 states with NIH support. Unfortunately, the president’s proposed budget threatens that research. Among the deep cuts to science support he seeks is a nearly $6 billion reduction for NIH, representing nearly a fifth of the agency’s funding. (For context, that’s more than its entire current cancer budget.) The proposal has prompted justifiable concern among scientists and patient advocates. Funding cuts would deter tomorrow’s scientists from the field, or at least from pursuing careers in the US.

Curtailing the NIH budget, a significant chunk of America’s biomedical research funding, would cripple our capacity to lead on pressing health challenges. The vast majority of NIH funds go to funding scientific research and training, both within the agency and externally. For decades, America has been at the forefront of scientific innovation. Slashing funding would destroy long-term projects and threaten American primacy in medical research. More importantly, underfunding NIH will hamstring efforts to fight disease.

By funding basic research, the federal government lays the groundwork for future innovation

Some might argue that private industry will fill the void, given the economic benefits of scientific breakthroughs,. But the truth, surprising to many, is that while private investment can indeed lead to the discovery of profitable new drugs and therapies, its focus on the bottom line tends to short-change basic — as opposed to applied —research. In weighing a project’s anticipated earnings and costs, businesses seek a probable path to profit.

Transformative science requires a different mold than the one found in industry. CRISPR grew not out of a race to develop disease treatments, but out of basic scientific research into bacteria. The boldest innovations stem from unlikely collaborations or quixotic investigations — in other words, exploration driven by discovery rather than profit. Occasionally, these projects do become profitable, but only through a scientist’s persistent drive to show that an idea, a hope, a hunch, is not so crazy after all. While stockholders may not want a corporation to make bets that are unlikely to have an immediate payoff, as citizens we must demand our government does so.

And that’s precisely why the National Institutes of Health exists: It ensures that, though we may not know what the next CRISPR will be, there are bright and dedicated American scientists pursuing many roads of inquiry, even if the path to profit isn’t immediately clear.

As Congress considers the president’s budget, we have a simple request: Please give America’s scientists the tools we need to succeed.

Supporting NIH will position American scientists to continue the open-ended explorations at which they excel. Government funding is critical to encourage our scientists to pursue not just the challenges that are relatively easy, or obviously profitable, but the ones that are fiendishly hard —yet crucial.

NIH funding is a down payment on discovery, the seed money to fund a critical step toward ending Alzheimer’s or curing cancer. What could be a bigger “win” for America than that?

Jennifer Doudna is a professor of chemistry, and molecular and cell biology, at the University of California, Berkeley. Alex Marson is an assistant professor of microbiology, immunology, and medicine at UC San Francisco.


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