Dear Mr President
Your administration has commendably focused not only on the urgent ways in which science can help the nation, especially through the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Homeland Security, but also in boosting the broader and longer-term interests of the country by increasing the budgets of, for example, the National Science Foundation, whose science constituencies underpin critical sources of knowledge and skills. I am troubled by the half-hearted approach adopted by your administration towards alternative energy sources and climate research, but will leave those issues for another day.
However, every President should leave a personal legacy that goes beyond the national political and social goals of the moment. If that legacy addresses one of the major issues facing the wider world, so much the better.
Malaria provides you with precisely that opportunity. It affects hundreds of millions of people and kills well over one million every year. It affects countries across South America, Africa and South East Asia. The challenges are made all the more urgent by the development of multidrug resistance by the parasite.
There have been some positive moves from philanthropists and charities for the control of malaria and for the development of vaccines and drugs, and some limited progress with private-public partnerships. But these funds—two or three hundred million all told - are a drop in the ocean. Furthermore, they do not seriously address the longer term need to investigate the malaria parasite at a basic scientific level.
Some people will argue that we already have enough science, we simply need to develop better drugs, or a vaccine, or have better controls of the disease through prevention. History shows, however, that every one of these alternative routes has its own chronic difficulties. Addressing new opportunities in the basic science of the disease could, in the long term, deliver more far-reaching solutions.
The journal Nature recently published the sequence of the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum's genome, and other related fundamental information critical in understanding the parasite. That's a key step along the way, and provides a new platform on which to develop essential insights into the many biomolecular and cellular pathways by which the parasite survives and interacts with us, its indispensible hosts. New techniques are beginning to be applied, such as high-throughput analyses of the pattern of gene expression and of the interactions of proteins at key phases of the parasite's lifecycle. The new availability of the genome combined with these techniques will undoubtedly spur progress significantly—if there are funds to permit it.
For the United States to provide significant help in this battle would not simply represent an act of great good will. It would also be in the nation's long-term strategic interests. The less that so many developing countries have to battle with the illness and mortality of malaria and the social burdens that they bring, the more they can focus on economic and social development and provide new opportunities for US businesses and other organisations.
There are many excellent researchers who would make rapid progress in malarial "post-genomics" if substantial new money became available. It would therefore be widely recognised as a wonderfully enlightened action if you were to ensure that the National Institutes of Health introduced a malaria post-genomics programme, with a new budget of at least $300m, as a first step towards the prevention and cure of this devastating disease.
Philip Campbell, PhD