Last night, in President Obama’s moving farewell address, he said that “science and reason matter,” and using climate change as an example he outlined what happens when you operate without them: “… without bolder action, our children won’t have time to debate the existence of climate change. They’ll be busy dealing with its effects: more environmental disasters, more economic disruptions, waves of climate refugees seeking sanctuary.”
Climate change wasn’t the only science-related action that Obama took during his tenure. Less noticed was his unprecedented work on antibiotic resistance. Calling it “one of the most pressing public health issues facing the world today,” he developed a National Action Plan to Combat Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria. To carry it out he proposed almost doubling the Department of Health and Human Services budget in FY 2016 to an unprecedented $1.2 billion.
Obama’s action on antibiotic resistance was driven by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), composed of, during Obama’s tenure, the nation’s best and brightest. For example, the co-chairs of PCAST are the president’s Science Advisor, John Holdren, PhD, who taught at Harvard prior to his appointment; and Eric Lander, PhD, of MIT and Harvard.
When Obama rolled out his National Action Plan on antibiotic resistance in 2015, Lander commented:
There is no permanent victory against microbes. If you use antibiotics, whether in human health care or in agriculture, you will over time see resistance. If we fail, if we fall behind in our stewardship, in our creation [of new antibiotics or equivalent therapies], or if we fail to surveil to understand what’s going on, it’s a very real risk to see a resurgence of what life looked like a century ago when we had bugs we could not treat. It’s a terrifying prospect. Now … it doesn’t help to do scare tactics around these things but it’s just plain scary.
But we have a problem: As of today, there are still three positions left unfilled in the incoming Administration and Science Advisor is one of them. And thus the question, where will we be without a Science Advisor and PCAST?
The online journal Science reports that more than two dozen U.S. scientific organizations have written the President-elect urging him to act quickly. They worry that a long delay on key appointments could mean science will take a back seat in policy deliberations by the new administration.
The reality is that superbugs are getting stronger, defeating our last resort antibiotics. More federal support is needed to develop new drugs and to carry out evidence-based programs that work in fighting antibiotic resistance — that’s the argument made in this informative year-end essay in Medscape News.
We either confront that reality — with a Science Advisor’s guiding hand — or the consequence will be, as the President warned the nation last night: “ … as my mother used to tell me, reality has a way of catching up with you.”