Scientists setting policy agendas — a hard job but someone has to do it

Goal #3: “Good Health and Well-Being” will require scientists to set priorities for neglected infectious diseases research and intervention (source: United Nations)

Setting priorities for research is a hard job for scientists. Scientists often do not want to pick areas that will be winners or losers because outcomes of research are uncertain. There are too many needs and possible research directions to pursue all at once — which technology will work out in the end? But if resources are spread too thin, no substantive progress will be made. Progress in global health, and more specifically, progress in combating neglected infectious diseases requires making difficult choices about where to spend resources or no one research area will move forward.

With a list that ranges from 17 to more than 50 diseases, neglected infectious diseases impact more than one billion people around the world. While a few are lethal, many more lead to debilitating illnesses that affect the ability to work or go to school. Various approaches to combating these diseases have been proposed including funding existing treatments and preventative measures; improving surveillance and physician awareness; and developing easier and quicker diagnostic tools, new therapeutic interventions, and novel vaccines. Should funds go towards improving health care access and infrastructure or to researchers creating new interventions? Should policymakers target specific diseases, distribute funds based on incidents, or hand it out evenly? Without setting priorities, scientists will end up diluting their message as well as resources. Furthermore, by choosing not to participate in priority setting, scientists are leaving these decisions to others — policymakers.

In our article, recently published in the journal PloS Neglected Tropical DiseasesNTD policy priorities: Science, values and agenda setting”, we lay out the challenges for setting an agenda and advocate for stakeholder engagement in priority setting. Scientists, to participate in the discussion. Priority setting requires hard choices with winners and losers, but it is vital to achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal to “ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.”

This post and the PloS NTD article were co-authored by Ana S. Iltis, Ph.D. and Kirstin R.W. Matthews, Ph.D. The @stpolicy blog is a product of Baker Institute’s Science and Technology Policy Program. Find more research and publications at