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When respect for science erodes

By Alan Townsend

Special to the Washington Post

Cancer won’t seem to leave my family alone. My grandmother, my mother, my father. Then my daughter, her fifth Christmas spent in intensive care after 11 hours of brain surgery. A year later, it came for my wife. Our daughter sat looking small and frail, shielded by a pair of oversize pink headphones, as the radiologist struggled to tell us there were two large lesions in my wife’s brain.

My wife, a woman of uncommon brilliance and strength, took her final breath on New Year’s Eve in 2015, her body like a wraith. But she took that breath at home, surrounded by people she loved, having said goodbye on her terms. Science gave our family that gift.

I’m a scientist. So was my wife. We understood the developmental hiccup that put the tumor in my daughter’s brain, the cellular tricks behind my wife’s experimental treatment, the awful ingenuity of her glioblastoma’s attack on her. We understood it was a fight my wife was nearly certain to lose.

Yet we knew how much her life, our daughter’s life, all our lives depended on science. Without it, our daughter would be a shadow of herself, if she were here at all. Without it, my wife’s final year would have shrunk to days. She ran two 5K races while beset with cancer’s symptoms, and won them both. She inspired countless people with nearly unimaginable strength and compassion, but she could not have written that extraordinary last chapter without the years of scientific research behind her treatments.

Science surrounds us every moment of every day. It’s in the relief of a child’s abating fever, in the joy of a summer waterslide, in the food we eat, the cars we drive and the air we breathe. It sustains us, transports us, protects us. Science is an alloy of heart and mind, factual and personal all at once.

But that alloy is weakening. Some of the blame rests on scientists themselves, for too often we don’t engage enough with the world we seek to improve. My wife’s oncologist began every meeting with us with a bear hug, a question about our daughter, a story about life. He invested in the enduring glue of building relationships with those he served. I wish more scientists would heed his example. For while our lives rest upon an infrastructure of facts, it is the heart that will determine whether society keeps its relationship with science strong or lets it slowly erode.

That erosion is underway. It’s no accident that many in last weekend’s marches donned white lab coats or carried signs defending science. Federal support for research has been flat for 16 years. The fraction of our budget devoted to science once led the world; at last count, we were barely hanging on to 10th place, and that was before President Trump’s inauguration. This administration is replete with people who have demeaned the scientific process and questioned the need for federal support.

Such attacks are metastatic. When climate science is thrown under the bus, when lifesaving vaccines are painted as dangerous, when science is chewed up in the ugly machinations of partisan politics and when the most basic truths of our world are twisted and ignored, it weakens the entire infrastructure and threatens society as a whole.

Our investments in research have been so wildly successful that most people take science for granted in their daily lives. Until they need it. But you can’t just dial it up from nowhere. The treatments that bought my wife a year suffused with heart, that let my daughter focus more on monkey bars than MRIs, were born from years of painstaking research and a few surprise discoveries that span multiple scientific fields. That’s how science works. We don’t always know where the answers will come from, but we do know they are far more frequent in a diverse, trusted and well-supported environment. Our country built a peerless scientific enterprise from what was just a tiny piece of our national spending, an investment with enormous returns. But of late, each budget hit and each partisan attack punches a new hole in a system on which we all depend.

Next month, science will once more hold all my faith, hopes and fears, for my daughter’s tumor is growing again. As before, I will sort through a mountain of data to decide which new treatment she will endure, knowing all the while that science is not perfect — that it can fail, that data don’t always point to a clear choice. But without the science that produced those data, there would be no hope. Our past commitment to scientific research opens up a world of possibility for her, and for all of us, that our grandparents could scarcely imagine.

Many years from now, when my daughter’s hair is gray, may that still be true.

Alan Townsend is a professor and associate vice chancellor for research at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He has also served as a senior executive at the National Science Foundation.

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