HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas

Health Crocuses

Cochlear implants to enhance hearing. Ado-trastuzumab emtansine to treat breast cancer. Bionic eyes for retinitis pigmentosa. Brain mapping.

What do all these share?

They represent hope for patients – if not today’s patients, then tomorrow’s.

Think of medical advancements as crocuses – tiny buds that presage spring. After a winter of grim weather, we yearn for sunshine. The crocuses are the first harbinger. So too after a winter of Congressional bickering, following a vitriolic campaign season, we grasp good news.

These medical advancements represent decidedly good news. But – a huge but – they don’t spring up sui generis. Like crocuses, they need planting. And, in the planting, Uncle Sam plays a major role.

As a nation we have embraced – even nurtured – a decidedly anti-intellectual mindset, mocking book-learning over good old common sense. We have discounted “smart” politicians, preferring “ordinary folk.” The Tea Party enthusiasts scorn not just government, but expertise. Trivia enthusiasts may recall Senator Roman Hruska (R-Nebraska). When President Nixon nominated G. Harrold Carswell to the Supreme Court in 1970, scholars declared him a mediocre judge. Hruska responded: “… there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they, and a little chance? We can’t have all Brandeises, Frankfurters and Cardozos.”

Maybe mediocrity is an asset on the Court- but not in the halls of science.

In the halls of science, we need brilliant minds, steady researchers, iconoclastic thinkers. And to cultivate that expertise, we need strong government.

So the anti-intellectuals among us must choose: good old common sense folks, or scientists. And if they choose the latter, they must put their money behind their choice, using government to fund a host of initiatives that Tea Party enthusiasts now yearn to pare (or eliminate).

Start with basic education. You groom scientists from early on. That means great public education for every American, starting with kindergarten. You can’t predict who will chomp at the bit to learn more, discover more, soar into the intellectual stratosphere; but you can predict that children mired in dreadful classrooms with overworked teachers will be lucky to get past high school. So public education will need an infusion of money, particularly in those communities hard-pressed to support basic services. And since lots of those children come from outside the United States, it means supporting them, without delving into the immigration status of their parents. Those children are here; if they grow up to be scientists or high school drop-outs, we all feel the result.

Then go on to university education. The core of scientific advancement begins with basic science. We don’t find “the cure” for anything until we understand the complex mechanisms of the body. So we need to pour money into basic sciences.

Now on to research. We need to dole out more money to the myriad researchers, both in the public and private sectors, working to find answers to our maladies. We need to strengthen the National Institutes of Health. Although Tea Partiers extol the private sector, the private sector alone, without government support, won’t propel science forward.

Finally, we need government to stand as the sentry to the cures, the treatments, the miracle drugs. Will this work? How often? What are the side-effects? The Food and Drug Administration – another arm of Uncle Sam – serves that function. Even Tea Partiers wouldn’t want to turn the clock back a century, to that good old time when government didn’t intervene in an unfettered marketplace of quackery.

Eventually, the Senate did not confirm Judge Carswell. Senators rejected the lure of mediocrity. So too I hope that the swathe of Americans enamored of ordinary common sense will re-think their scorn for expertise. Gardeners understand that crocuses grow from bulbs planted in fertile soil. Medical advancements are not so different. We need to cultivate our country’s present and future scientists.

Joan Retsinas is a sociologist who writes about health care in Providence, R.I. Email

From The Progressive Populist, April 1, 2013

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