A Peace Dividend
Reprinted frm my column for AARP: The Magazine on
The occasion of the Obama proposal to keep troops in
Afghanistan beyond 2014.
Our imaginations fly to airplanes and crowded subways or any possible urban targets we are spending billions to protect. Americans watch if not wait for something dreadful to happen. That is a sad fact of life. Talk of terrorism floods our lives as our search for security may be permanent. Clearly, that is necessary, though our national obsession has pushed us to make bad choices.
The American military commitment in Afghanistan makes no sense. Osama bin Laden was hiding in Pakistan, the American born terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki eliminated in Yemen. We are not fighting countries, just freelance terrorists. I am a citizen living with a chronic illness, a club whose members represent virtually half the population, Many are victims of an enemy lose in the land, operating with stealth within our borders.
Diseases, organisms and infections come in the night to kill and wound without mercy. Able bodied men are laid to waste. Women and children perish. Carnage is arbitrary. This is terrorism by any definition. These terrible conditions are cruel. And we are doing precious little to protect ourselves.
The military budget is sucking up funds once intended for medical research. The NIH budget for the vital work of this research stands at about #30 billion. Sound like a lot of money? It is the equivalent of what we spend in Afghanistan alone every two and a half months. Throw in what we still are spending in Iraq on top of that.
Medical inflation drops the real value of the NIH budget to below the $29 billion, where that budget sat for years. The 105th Congress did vote to double the NIH budget in 1999 and stood strong until 2003, but when we went to war in Iraq that year, those funds dried up. If this sounds like the old guns and butter argument, amend that to read guns and human life. That is what medical research is all about, protecting our lives. As time passes, the population ages and sickness rates only increase.
We are living in an era of discredited federal spending, as if any expenditures are poison or a ponzi scheme. Dr. Elias Zerhouni, Pres. George W. Bush’s NIH chief , pointed out in 2006 that returns on medical research monies are a measurable net plus. Spending $2.60 for every American each year on strokes has lowered the death rate by 70% in the last thirty years.
An investment of about $3.70 per person over the same period for research on coronary disease has decreased the mortality rate by 63%. And cancers, our national nightmare, are on the defensive. “For the first time in recorded history,” Dr. Zerhouni wrote in an NIH bulletin, “ annual cancer deaths in the U.S. have fallen. And there are ten mil lion cancer survivors.” You cannot argue with success.
“In any given year, the number of NIH grants is limited not by promising scientific ideas, but by the amount of money appropriated by Congress,” according to Bradie Metheney, a journalist who frequently writes about NIH. “Today, only one in five talented researchers who submit grants to NIH will receive funding, a historic low. Budget constraints in Washington are leaving four out of every five of the best scientific ideas unfunded.”
That leaves a lot of great ideas floating into space. But medical research is not on the national radar screen. Americans are more concerned with jobs today than issues of war and peace or our national health. It should be noted that as many as 300 thousand jobs are tied to the giant medical research apparatus at its current size. Presumably, increasing the NIH budget would serve as its own stimulus package, even as it protects our collective health.
No reasonable and realistic person questions the wisdom of protecting national safety and security. American public opinion, though, lines up against the war in Afghanistan. A majority of Americans now see that war in Afghanistan as not worth fighting, and just a quarter say more U.S. troops should be sent to the country, according to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll.
The life and death drama plays out in the villages and mountains of that far away place. All of us need to realize that our health wars are fought in scientific laboratories at home. And many here are casualties of our questionable wars because there are scant resources left to do the vital work of research. Our priorities are very wrong.