When reports of lavish spending of taxpayer dollars on food, hotels and entertainment by Government Services Administration employees at conferences surfaced in April 2012, the public and Congress reacted swiftly and negatively.
We all found this behavior unacceptable, especially during a time of economic crisis and hardship for so many Americans. However, the overreaction has now reached the level of the theater of the absurd.
New Defense Department polices have led to one-size-fits-all restrictions aimed at limiting all expenditures to prevent any possibility of bad publicity. This dangerous overreaction will prevent medical and scientific professionals from attending their professional society meetings and ultimately may place American service members in harm’s way — vulnerable not to foreign troops but to infectious diseases.
For the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research and the Naval Medical Research Center, in particular, this decision is devastating.
For more than a century, the WRAIR, the NMRC and their overseas laboratories have been conducting research on tropical and infectious diseases. Their work has led to increased understanding and treatments, vaccines, diagnostics and preventive measures for yellow fever, malaria, dengue fever, hepatitis A, meningococcal meningitis, dysentery, typhoid, cholera, syphilis and many other diseases, as well as new protocols such as the use of chlorination to disinfect drinking water.
These advances would have been impossible without the opportunity for DOD researchers such as ourselves to collaborate with experts in their fields at national and international scientific conferences.
The U.S. military has been a leader in research and development for tropical infectious diseases for more than a century primarily because of the devastating effect these diseases have had on operational readiness and mission effectiveness.
During World War II and the Vietnam War there were more than 12 million and 1 million troop days lost, respectively, because of malaria — missions were undermined or aborted because of malaria and our military personnel died of malaria. Our troops continue to be at risk for malaria, dengue fever, diarrheal diseases and many other well-known and emerging infections in the theaters where they are deployed. Soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan have been at risk for contracting leishmaniasis, a parasitic infection transmitted by the bites of sand flies that leads to difficult to treat chronic skin ulcers. Many of these diseases continue to affect soldiers long after they return home, and we must continue to develop new ways of protecting them.
For Army and Navy biomedical scientists, attendance at professional scientific conferences, such as that of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, is not to be confused with a travel perk or a taxpayer-funded outing masquerading as a scientific gathering.
It is the single-largest international opportunity in tropical medicine research for the military’s scientists to have meaningful, face-to-face interactions with leading infectious disease experts from academia, the National Institutes of Health, the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, nongovernmental organizations, international governments and corporate partners from around the world.
It’s an opportunity to discuss data and research protocols and brainstorm in real time. It provides a springboard for national and international cooperation that can move promising treatments from laboratories to clinics worldwide. These meetings, more akin to classrooms, also help further the education of our scientists, particularly early-career investigators who we need to stay in the field if we are to be serious about retaining U.S. leadership in science and innovation.
Tropical medicine is a complex, diverse and rapidly changing field. Recent research shows drug-resistant malaria is spreading and could be our next global public health disaster. But this deadly serious problem is just one in a long list of agenda items at the ASTMH meeting. The participation of Army and Navy physicians and scientist is critical if we are to achieve optimal, cost-effective communication of research findings and generate the ideas needed to conceive and execute the research studies that will bring us the next generation of interventions to protect our troops, international travelers, aid workers, diplomatic personnel and the underserved populations worldwide, who suffer most from these afflictions.
If we expect our military research and development professionals to perform high-quality research, this cannot be conducted in a vacuum.
No doubt, online journals and webinars can provide information, but there’s no substitute for face-to-face interactions to build collaborations, particularly when the topic at hand is how best to save lives. Those of us who do this work know that successful research projects and new discoveries rely on collaboration and exchange of scientific information.
In addition, broad and poorly justified proscriptions on participating in professional organizations are devastating to morale. They will be an impetus for the most experienced to leave government service and a reason for young talented physicians and scientists to pursue professional careers elsewhere.
Smart decisions need to be made about U.S. investments in research and development so that promising research can continue to deliver. We have come too far to allow our efforts to stall. At risk is no less than the health of our soldiers, the related global security and America’s long-standing reputation as the mecca of research in tropical medicine. Let’s put science before politics. Maybe scientists can teach Washington a lesson or two on collaboration.
Dr. Alan J. Magill is past president and a fellow of the American Society of Tropical Medicine’s clinical group and a fellow of the society. He is a former director of the Division of Experimental Therapeutics at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. Dr. Stephen L. Hoffman is chief executive and scientific officer of Sanaria Inc. He is a past president of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene and past president of the society’s clinical group. He is a former director of the Malaria Program at the Naval Medical Research Center.