Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Way cool Big Science

You've heard all about the Large Hadron Collider, and the Human Genome
Project got plenty of press, not to mention the Hubble Space Telescope. The corporate media breathlessly hype some purported medical breakthrough every week, which promises to cure a dread disease in a decade or two.

Strange, then, that few people are aware of one of the biggest of big science projects, the National Children's Study. The study was first authorized by Congress in 2000, had some ups and downs securing funding since then, but now has in hand $414 million of the more than $2.5 billion (probably more like $5 billion) it will ultimately cost. I expect the reason it doesn't get a lot of attention is because it's epidemiology -- the mission of the study is to understand the environmental determinants of health, including the social environment, as they interact with people's genetic inheritance. It is planned ultimately to follow more than 100,000 people from the womb to age 21, recruited from 105 sites across the country carefully selected to produce a representative sample of the U.S. population.

Or, in their own words:

The National Children’s Study will examine the effects of the environment, as broadly defined to include factors such as air, water, diet, sound, family dynamics, community and cultural influences, and genetics on the growth, development, and health of children across the United States, following them from before birth until age 21 years. The goal of the Study is to improve the health and well-being of children and contribute to understanding the role various factors have on health and disease. Findings from the Study will be made available as the research progresses, making potential benefits known to the public as soon as possible.

Right now the study is in a pilot phase, testing recruitment strategies at about40 sites. Obviously, you shouldn't hold your breath until they get final results, but findings will be published continually along the way as they emerge. I certainly think it's more than worth it -- this can go a long way toward teaching us how to maintain a healthy population, instead of stepping in after things go wrong and spending trillions of dollars to try to fix them.

But what are the chances of the study surviving Republican hegemony? This money is chump change compared to modest cuts in marginal tax rates for the obscenely wealthy, but I'm not counting on president Rand Paul to pay for it.


kathy a. said...

this kind of study is so important, and in ways we might not yet perceive. it is so hard to reconstruct factors retrospectively -- records are destroyed, nobody may have paid attention to various factors, etc. presumably, one advantage is not only tracking a lot of factors over time, with a large and diverse population, but records will be kept.

Cervantes said...

Yes, this is expensive but it's the only way to do it. It's called a prospective cohort study - it's like the Framingham Heart Study or the Women's Health Initiative.

Retrospective studies, as you say, aren't worth a fraction as much.