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Editorial: Politics infecting science, public health

The Lasker prizes always capture attention among scientists, but two of the three winners announced last week will probably create political waves, too. That’s a sad reflection on politics, not science.

The Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation hands out these $250,000 awards annually, and they are often referred to as “America’s Nobel Prize.”

The medical research award went to two researchers at the National Cancer Institute – Douglas Lowy and John Schiller – for developing the HPV vaccine. The public service award went to Planned Parenthood for “providing essential health services and reproductive care to millions of women for more than a century.” Swiss molecular biologist Michael N. Hall was the third winner for groundbreaking discoveries in cell growth.

The winners noted how the political environment impacts their work. Indeed, the Trump administration is calling for large funding cuts in science and medical research, the kind of work performed by Lowy, Schiller and Hall. A quote from Mary Lasker, who was instrumental in expanding funding for the National Institutes of Health, is appropriate: “Without money, nothing gets done.”

Private research, of course, exists, but it generally follows promising profit-making avenues. Nothing wrong with that, but it takes patience to achieve breakthroughs in cancer, vaccinations and other areas. The HPV vaccine was 30 years in the making.

Planned Parenthood, of course, faces congressional attempts to strip its funding, because some of its clinics also provide abortions. However, abortions are not federally funded, so the defunding impact would come in other areas, such as reproductive health, birth-control services and cancer screenings.

Planned Parenthood critics claim funding for those services should be shifted to community health care clinics, but that’s wishful thinking. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the National Partnership for Women & Families, along with community health center officials, say already-busy clinics cannot pick up the slack.

Some politicians are also queasy about contraception, believing birth control encourages young people to be more promiscuous. But the data show positive outcomes, with rates of teen pregnancy and abortion steadily declining as contraception has become more accessible.

The fear of promiscuity, along with the reluctance to have conversations about teen sex, have also hindered efforts to get more young people of both sexes vaccinated against the human papillomavirus, a sexually transmitted disease that can lead to cervical and oral cancers. Sadly, the country where the HPV vaccine was developed (in 2006) is struggling to take advantage of it. Last year, the overall up-to-date immunization rate (all doses) was 43.4 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

We applaud the winners of this year’s Lasker prizes, but we can’t help but wonder how much more could be achieved if science and public health could be inoculated against politics.



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