Why Celebrate Science, and Why Now?
In the past century we've witnessed what is arguably the greatest accomplishment in human history: average life expectancy on the planet has more than doubled. That’s changed the world in profound ways. We’re living longer, healthier and more productive lives than at any time in history, and many of us will receive the immeasurable gift of more time with our loved ones. The economic impact of scientific achievement has been significant as well: over the past two centuries - by far the most prosperous 200 years in human history - advances in bioscience have driven more than half of the world's economic growth.
That's why, in September 2012, we convened more than a thousand leaders from the scientific, government, industry, philanthropic and academic communities for the Celebration of Science - to honor the tremendous accomplishments we've made toward achieving the impossible, and to imagine what's possible if we reaffirm our commitment to science.
The Celebration continues work begun 20 years ago, leading to the first-ever Cancer Summit in 1995 and the 1998 March on Washington, which brought together hundreds of thousands of patients, doctors, researchers and other advocates to support increased bioscience investments. The March capped years of work, and several prominent leaders participated, including Vice President Al Gore; General Norman Schwarzkopf (honorary chair of the March); Senators Bob Dole, Tom Harkin, Connie Mack and Harry Reid; Queen Noor of Jordan (whose husband, the late King Hussein, was in attendance but whose advancing cancer made him too sick to speak); and leading medical researchers.
In the years following the 1998 March, Congress doubled the resources of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and tripled the budget of the National Science Foundation (NSF). That investment in science and technology led to increased private investment, as well as philanthropy, setting in motion a virtuous cycle that created years of productive research and discovery.
Those investments have paid off immeasurably. The years following the March were a period of extraordinary biomedical discovery and technological advances. Scientists developed dozens of new therapies for cancer and other life-threatening diseases, isolated human embryonic stem cells, sequenced the human genome and made many other advances that have helped patients worldwide. More important, those investments have saved millions of lives and given many individuals the invaluable gift of more time with their loved ones.
History demonstrates the long-term benefits of investing in scientific progress. Economists Kevin Murphy and Robert Topel at the University of Chicago estimate that life expectancy gains since 1970 have added an average of $3.2 trillion per year to the U.S. economy. More than a decade ago they estimated that the economic impact of eliminating deaths from heart disease and cancer in the United States is more than $100 trillion - six times the size of our national economy and six times greater than the national debt. There is no greater economic stimulus than saving, extending and improving the quality of lives.
In addition to addressing the enormous human and economic toll of life-threatening disease, bioscience investments also hold the promise of helping solve the most significant and seemingly intractable global issues of the 21st century, including access to water, food production, defense against bioterrorism, energy supplies and environmental sustainability. Failure to maintain our national commitments to translational research and programs to encourage younger investigators could devastate progress and demoralize an entire new generation of scientists. Some will change careers; others will take their work elsewhere, to places like Singapore that put out the welcome mat for promising researchers. Whether continuing breakthroughs emerge from U.S. laboratories or somewhere else will profoundly affect America’s role among nations in the 21st century.
Our great scientists and clinicians don't receive enough recognition. We all benefit from their work, and they should be role models for the next generation of students. Although the United States has sought to emphasize the importance of science, technology, engineering and math (or STEM) education, a recent Washington Post article tells a different story. A Ph.D. chemist, after losing her job and being unable to find a new one, tells her science-loving daughter to go into another field because there are no job opportunities in science. That’s an ominous message to students.
The Celebration of Science is a wake-up call that America's place in the world depends on our commitment to the sciences. We hope to help jumpstart a new wave of scientific discovery and innovation similar to the one that began in the late 1990s. To get there will require commitment - from industry, academia, policy leaders, patients and their families.
We did it in 1998 and 2012, and we’re keeping it going this year.