By Russel E. Kaufman
Current U.S. efforts to defeat Ebola at the source are rightly a top priority, but the question remains: How do we get there?
While the threat on American soil remains relatively small, the fact is that the Ebola outbreak is far from contained in Africa. Funneling travel from West African destinations through a small number of airports, creating new protective guidelines for medical personnel, and designating more hospital isolation units are not the only answers.
The key is a refocused effort at home - host to some of today's brightest scientific minds - to develop a vaccine or drug to halt the spread. However, this has been hampered by the federal government's commitment to biomedical research, which can be described as tepid at best.
The United States spends more than $2.5 trillion on health care, yet the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget for research is just over $30 billion - a figure that has been flat over the last seven years. Once a leader in biomedical research and development spending, our country is now losing the race to China and other Asian nations.
Most of the greatest advances in biomedical research have been based on laboratory discoveries about the underlying mechanisms of disease. In almost all cases, teams of scientists sequentially made basic discoveries, each chipping away at a stone that held a secret and then building on each other's discoveries. Finding a way to defeat Ebola is no different.
For science to truly make inroads, it needs to make long-term plans. Consistent funding is absolutely vital, yet federal budget realities severely undercut the NIH's ability to take advantage of investments in basic research that lead to the important discoveries that support lifesaving medical innovations. In 2013, the NIH awarded 640 fewer competitive research grants, and the amount awarded for existing grants was reduced by 4.7 percent - the bitter reality of federal sequestration.
Consider it this way: Biomedical research is no longer just the individual scientist working long hours alone in the laboratory. Instead, it involves education and training of visionary investigators with a variety of skills, perhaps from different disciplines, who can be assembled into teams. Training for each scientist may take 15 years at low pay and long hours, with the prospect of an uncertain future.
Scientific team leaders must secure grants to pay for staff, equipment, and supplies. Only one in 12 grants gets funded by the federal government, so it may take years to build a team and secure the most modern equipment. Once assembled, interruptions to adequate funding can quickly halt experiments, dismantle years of work on research projects, and cut jobs for committed scientists and laboratory technicians.
We must take a long-term view on scientific training and research support. The science of research and discovery never stops. The innovation that goes into solving some of humankind's most pressing health concerns is constantly churning.
A national "moon-shot mission" to cure Ebola will only drain funds from other important programs, unless a commitment is made to appropriate additional federal funds. Given what has fast become a global public health crisis, now is the time to boost funding for promising research that can, and will one day soon, lead to a cure.
Scientists once solved the polio epidemic and turned AIDS from a death sentence to a chronic disease. The scientific community is almost there on Ebola - but consistent, long-term funding is needed for science to truly make inroads on the disease.
Medical research champion Mary Lasker once said, "If you think research is expensive, try disease" - a sentiment echoing strongly today in the face of Ebola. That is why it is imperative for Congress and the administration to commit to a long-term funding plan for the NIH. If we are to ever accelerate discovery, explore promising new avenues of research, and cure diseases that afflict mankind, we must lay the foundation today.