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Funding shouldn't rely on competing death tolls

Sir

I think it is important to note the irony in your News story, “Protest letter accuses health agency of biodefence bias” (Nature 434, 7; 200510.1038/434007a), of researchers who shun the study of disease complaining that a US agency called the National Institutes of Health fails to fund them adequately.

I find it striking that those who protest against the funding of biodefence research are proposing instead that public-health menaces should be given the highest priority. By this standard, many of the letter's signatories should voluntarily return their funding for research on Bacillus subtilis, Escherichia coli and other non-pathogens so that it can be appropriately directed towards the obvious public-health threats of HIV and tuberculosis.

Although I disagree with their reasoning, I strongly agree that basic microbial research is so important, in and of itself, that its funding level should be not be reduced regardless of other concerns, whether arising from public health or bioterrorism. Using body counts (“Bioweapons agents cause, on average, zero deaths per year”) may be useful in the short term to frame the debate, but I fear they will be damaging in the long run. How many of us want to be asked, when our next grant is reviewed: “How many people did your bug kill last year?”. I certainly don't.

If basic research is relevant to the health of the nation, then make the case that it is so. The current approach will only leave funding levels vulnerable to the next media sensation or hysterical distraction.

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Hilbert, D. Funding shouldn't rely on competing death tolls. Nature 434, 956 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1038/434956c

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