(By Anoria Haick/Anoria Haick was born and raised in the Chewelah area and graduated from Jenkins High School in 2001. She resides in Seattle, and works at the University of Washington investigating the impact of environmental pollutants on humans.)
On Earth Day, April 22nd, 2015, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich penned an editorial in the New York Times, urging the Obama administration to double the budget of the National Institutes of Health. A year later, he would join the campaign of our current president, Donald Trump, who would go on to propose one of the most regressive agendas against the scientific community in recorded memory. And two years to the day after our former Speaker wrote that essay, scientists across the country will take to the streets to advocate for public awareness, funding, advocacy and education in the March for Science.
While the March will take place on Earth Day, climate change and environmental science aren’t the only topics on the agenda. Under our current administration, all science — if not all fact and reason — is under assault, from the funding that fuels research to the validity of its findings. Under the President’s proposed budget, funding for National Institutes of Health will be reduced by 20 percent, while the EPA could see their budget diminished by a third. The Department of Energy’s Office of Science will see a $900 million cut, and just recently, the President repealed clean energy standards designed to reduce emissions and make America energy-independent. As a science professional, it is hard to look at this administration’s three-month track record and feel anything but discouraged.
For the last ten years, I have worked as a research scientist for several public institutions, including Washington State University, University of Idaho, University of Washington, and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Institute. During this time, I have participated in research projects examining cancer, infectious disease and immunity, the human microbiome, and the public health impacts of air pollution. Government grants have been the primary resource for my research, and getting these grants is both time consuming and highly competitive. Only around 11-14 percent of grants proposed are ultimately funded. This competition ensures that only valid, worthy research is funded, and that the proposed research is scientifically accurate and sound.
The cuts proposed by the Trump Administration will have a direct effect on my ability to do my job. Currently, I work in a lab that studies lung biology, where we are developing new stem cell therapies to prevent lung injury. Unlike some organs, our lungs are constantly exposed to the environment simply through the mechanism of breathing. Critically, however, the lungs do not regenerate damaged tissue, instead forming scars. The result is pulmonary fibrosis, or scarring of the lungs — imagine a piece of duct tape covering a portion the balloon that is your lung. As these pieces of tape accumulate, they restrict the ability of the balloon to inflate. Over time, a person will develop chronic shortness of breath, which may lead to worse syndromes like cancer, infections, pulmonary hypertension, or even heart attacks. At this time, there is no cure for lung fibrosis: once the damage occurs, you are stuck with it for life.
As with many things, an ounce of prevention can be worth a pound of cure. As Speaker Gingrich pointed out, solutions are still in progress, and it is critical that preventing lung injury be the first course of action. For most people, this is as simple as increased awareness of when you might come in contact with a hazard. Thanks to the Clean Air Act, many of the damaging chemicals and particulate pollution that you may once have inhaled on a daily basis have been significantly curtailed, with a corresponding decrease in premature death and other serious health effects, including lung fibrosis. This is an excellent example of what governmental policies can achieve when they are based on scientific and medical facts. Some of the research that I am involved in currently focuses on identifying the environmental and personal hazards of engineered nanomaterials, highly reactive and specially designed particulates which have industrial, medical, energy and electrical applications. With the guidelines developed by the EPA, we can identify potential dangers before they cause irreversible damage.
All of this may seem abstract — when’s the next time you plan to play with some engineered nanomaterials? But the reduction in EPA funding means that my research is unlikely to continue. With the repeal of clean air standards, these pollutants, along with many others, will find their way back into the environment and into your lungs. Without money to study the effects, serious health impacts may go undiscovered. Thanks to the proposed cuts to the NIH, new therapies and treatments to address lung injury will not be found. Should an emerging infectious respiratory disease strike in the coming years, America will be ill-prepared to care for its population.
Investments in science have been bipartisan for decades, and America has long been a leader in technology and innovation because of these investments. Particularly when our country is faced by the threats of climate change, growing resource scarcity, an aging population and ballooning healthcare costs, along with the ever-present potential of an infectious disease outbreak, the Trump Administration’s science budget is the very definition of cutting one’s nose off to spite their face. As the direct beneficiaries of federally-funded research, it is critical that the public defend these investments and let our government know that senseless cuts are not okay. If you value the role of science in our society, as I do, please join the March for Science and let your voice be heard.