13 October 2014

“We’d probably have [insert thing needed now] if not for budget cuts”

Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said about the prospects for an Ebola vaccine:

Frankly, if we had not gone through our 10-year slide in research support, we probably would have had a vaccine in time for this that would’ve gone through clinical trials and would have been ready.

Collins's statement gives me the heebie-jeebies. I kind of doubt that an Ebola vaccine is something we’d “probably” have by now, funding or not. (Though I am too far away from vaccine development to have a good sense of the state of play - maybe research on Ebola is more advanced than I think.)

We should not base arguments for science funding on specific promises for specific goodies, because a lot of things science promised never materialized. People will never stop asking where there jetpacks and flying cars are. More seriously, people ask why we still can’t cure cancer, more 40 years after President Nixon started what became known as the “war on cancer.” Unmet promises burns scientists.

Perhaps a better argument (which I saw on Twitter, can’t recall who): We need the NIH to develop things like Ebola vaccines, because private industry probably has no profit motive to do so.

Additional: Of course, I wrote all of the above before I saw that a Canadian-led Ebola vaccine is now in human trials. Maybe Collins’s statement was based on better knowledge than I had.

But darn it, it still sounds like a fairly calculated ploy to use current events to lobby for a bigger budget.

More additional, 14 October 2014: Michael Eisen reaches a similar conclusion to mine:

(I)t’s time to call this for what it is: complete bullshit. ...

(E)ven if you believe the only thing holding up development of the Ebola vaccine was funds, it’s still false to argue that with more money we’d have an Ebola vaccine. Vaccine and drug development just simply doesn’t work this way.

Update, 16 October 2014: Justin Kiggins points out that Collins’s argument backfired in an entirely predictable way. A major international newspaper and an American politician has pulled a trick American politicians have used for years:
  1. Look through titles of grants.
  2. Find grants that look obvious or silly.
  3. Do not contact researchers in charge of grants or read grants.
  4. Argue that agency wastes taxpayer money.

Update, 19 October 2014: Other officials in the NIH are disagreeing with their director. This quote is from Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, this morning:

“I don’t think you can say we would or would not have that. Everything has slowed down but I would not make that statement” that higher funding would have led to a vaccine by now(.)

Related posts

Promises versus trust

External links

Ebola Vaccine Would Likely Have Been Found By Now If Not For Budget Cuts: NIH Director
NIH Director Francis Collins’ ridiculous “We would have had an Ebola vaccine if the NIH were fully funded” meme
NIH Director throws basic research under the bus to score Ebola points. It backfires.

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