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Q and A with Mary Woolley, President of Research!America

May / June 2012 | Volume 11, Issue 3

Headshot of Mary Woolley
Photo by Lois Tema
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Mary Woolley, President
Research!America

Global health research funding not only brings humanitarian benefits but is also a powerful driver of U.S. economic activity. One organization that tracks this phenomenon is Research!America, the nation's largest not-for-profit advocacy organization committed to making medical and health research a higher national priority. Mary Woolley, who has led the group since 1990, spoke with Global Health Matters on this topic.

Why is the U.S. global health research investment important to our domestic economy?

Like the federal investment in R&D targeting domestic diseases, global health R&D creates new jobs and new businesses in the U.S., benefiting local economies and increasing federal revenues to reduce the deficit. More than 211,000 jobs are supported by global health R&D in New Jersey alone.

Across the U.S., private pharmaceutical, biotech and medical device companies are working on global health solutions - whether it is GeoVax in Georgia, Emergent Biosolutions in Maryland or Cepheid in California. Public-private partnerships, like the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative in New York or PATH in Washington state are creating domestic jobs and economic activity as they help solve some of the world's most pressing public health concerns. Not only is global health research important to our economy now, this investment will continue to contribute to a sustainable, knowledge-based economy that keeps the U.S. competitive and innovative.

What do you mean by innovation?

Innovation can happen in the blink of an eye or - when it comes to research and development - may surface over time. In terms of global health R&D, it can mean a breakthrough in federally funded basic science that enables private sector development of a new diagnostic, vaccine or drug, or the discovery that a product developed for one use has critical applications in another arena. For example, there's the tuberculosis drug BCG that is now the primary treatment for bladder cancer or the failed cancer therapy drug AZT that is now treating HIV/AIDS patients. Global health R&D innovation requires both public and private sector support: public sector dollars to finance the basic science that lays the groundwork for further discovery and private sector dollars to develop and commercialize global health products.

How does research training contribute to U.S. global competitiveness?

Our nation needs to cultivate leaders in all areas of innovation, including global health, to maintain our competitiveness in an increasingly globalized world. Many young scientists from abroad conduct research in the U.S., but we need to be able to retain the talent we attract and the students we cultivate here. Global health threats in the developing world are expanding to include diseases that were previously associated primarily with developed countries, and conversely, diseases that were previously confined to developing countries are emerging here in the U.S. The Fogarty International Center is playing a key role in ensuring that our nation can remain fully engaged in addressing global health threats, which advances our health, our economy and our humanitarian values.

How do Americans view global health research and the U.S. leadership role in science?

Research!America has commissioned recent polling in a number of different states across the country, and consistently Americans view global health research favorably, because of both its health and economic impacts. However, there is concern that our global competitive edge is slipping: According to a national poll we commissioned in March 2012, more than half (58 percent) of Americans do not believe the U.S. will be a world leader in science and technology in the year 2020. There is a clear disconnect between what Americans believe our nation should do and what they believe is actually happening.

What is the risk of stagnant or decreased funding for global health research?

The risk is certainly real, but we must fight to ensure that our nation's investment in global health R&D reflects the pressing need for more global health solutions and the positive impact of R&D on our economy. Compassion and pragmatism should drive Americans to advocate for this research, and Research!America - along with the Gates Foundation, the Global Health Technologies Coalition and other global health partners - is working hard to raise the profile of this critical issue.

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