Health research should be a priority
Opinion By Louis W. Sullivan
Patients and the scientists who are working for them have a lot riding on the outcome of this election — not least how a new administration and new Congress would prioritize medical research and innovation.
Will the new President commit to advancing medical progress during their first 100 days in office? Equally important: will recruiting and retaining young scientists and assuring they have the resources necessary to pursue productive careers be a Presidential priority? As the nation listens to the candidates debate, will we hear commitments to achieving an inclusive scientific workforce?
Diversity in the scientific workforce is critical in order to address the many health challenges afflicting minority communities. Diversity of participation in clinical research is also necessary to gather accurate data regarding the efficacy of drugs on different populations.
Yet, clinical trial participation among minority groups remains troublingly low. Less than 20 percent of African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians and non-Hispanic whites say neither they nor anyone in their family has ever participated in a clinical trial, according to a survey commissioned by Research!America. But there’s still hope. Altruism appears to be a motivating factor among non-white populations, with a majority expressing willingness to participate in a trial to improve the health of others.
Vice President Joe Biden’s cancer moonshot initiative might just be the way to put all the pieces together, that is, if the dollars are made available to fund it, through the National Institutes of Health and partners in the private sector. The initiative has made improvements in the clinical trials system a goal by helping to improve the efficiency of this research, and by making it easier for patients to get information about trials.
Among the steps — a redesign of Trials.Cancer.gov; modifying the criteria for participation; and stronger requirements for reporting results of federally funded trials. Frankly, an overhaul of clinical research is overdue; currently, less than five percent of adult cancer patients are enrolled in a trial. We can, and we must, do better if we are to overcome the scourge of this killer.
What is the viewpoint of our presidential candidates when it comes to clinical research and the scientific enterprise as a whole? Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, have commented on several key issues ranging from vaccines to mental health to climate change in a questionnaire from ScienceDebate.org and other scientific organizations. Their responses provide clues as to how each candidate would tackle various hot-button topics impacting the health and well-being of Americans. But what’s especially important is learning how they plan to make these campaign promises a reality post-election. Let’s hear some specifics!
During my tenure as Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, health equity and programs to reduce tobacco use were high priorities for the president, along with increasing gender and racial diversity among senior leaders at HHS. We established the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, inaugurated the Women’s Health Research Program at the National Institutes of Health and launched a $100 million minority male health and injury prevention initiative.
I urge candidates running for national office to develop and discuss their concrete plans to build on what has been accomplished over the last decades in the scientific community.
Unfortunately in recent years, tight budgets, ill-advised policies and an air of complacency among many elected officials, who take breakthroughs in research for granted, have made it increasingly difficult to advance medical progress. If candidates are committed to achieving a healthier nation and a strong, inclusive scientific workforce, they must make their plans known to voters before the election.
We’re all ears.
Dr. Louis W. Sullivan is president emeritus, Morehouse School of Medicine and was U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 1989-1993.