Biomedical optics gets personal

Last December at the Neuroscience 2007 meeting in San Diego, CA, former U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich stood before thousands of physicians, researchers, and students and implored them to become citizens “for at least 15 minutes every six months” if they want the U.S. Congress to continue funding scientific research and education.

“If you think you are too busy to educate Washington about what you know, then you’ll have to put up with their ignorant decisions,” said Gingrich, who founded the Center for Health Transformation (Washington, D.C.). “You need to educate the people you elected to represent you. You need to be a citizen as well as a scientist. This (U.S.) is a multi-trillion-dollar budget. They can always find the money if they want to.”

There are an amazing number of people on Capitol Hill who care about the life sciences, he added. The goal is to build the momentum to motivate them to continue to support funding for it.

“We have to get away from thinking that science is knowledge and go back to thinking about science as process,” he said. “The scientific enterprise is the single most important factor in keeping this country at the forefront.”

We may not agree with the man’s politics in general, but we certainly need champions like him in government these days, given the burgeoning economic crisis in the United States and its potential impact on funding for biomedical research. In the U.S. 2009 federal budget, President George Bush is once again calling for increases in funding for the physical sciences, but at the expense of agencies like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Cancer Institute (see www.nytimes.com/2008/02/05/science/05spac.html?ref=science). According to the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (Washington, D.C.), under Bush’s proposed budget, NIH would receive exactly the same amount ($29.5 billion) in 2009 as in 2008, leaving NIH 13% below the 2004 funding level.

We talk about personalized medicine being the latest “trend” in health care, but truth is much of what the biomedical optics community does is very personal. Most of us have lost loved ones to cancer or heart disease and watched friends and family suffer the debilitating effects of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other chronic and life-threatening illnesses. The last few years have seen a number of critical advances in finding, understanding, and treating these diseases through the use of lasers, optics, and imaging, thanks in large part to government funding that has dramatically improved the entire “benchtop to bedside” technology-development cycle.

It is time to pick up our pens—or open up our laptops—and let our lawmakers know how we really feel about what they are doing with our tax dollars. We need to ensure that the research and technology development that has been the hallmark of the biomedical optics community for the past 20 years does not fall by the wayside in the wake of indecisive government and flailing economic policies.

Let’s all, as Newt suggests, step up and be citizens for at least 15 minutes.

Kathy Kincade
Editor in Chief

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