10/10/2012 01:20 pm ET Updated Dec 10, 2012

Of Ann Romney, Nobel Prizes and "Big Government" Medicine

Ann and Mitt Romney surely cheered the award of the Nobel Prize in medicine this week. The award was given to two scientists for their work in cloning and stem cell research. That research holds the best promise for curing Multiple Sclerosis, the disease which afflicts Ann Romney.

MS is a cruel disease. Slowly, unpredictably, it degrades the neurological system, causing its victims to lose control of their muscles. There is no cure for MS, though treatment for it has improved dramatically over the last few decades and by all accounts Ann Romney is managing her disease well.

Ann Romney's struggle with chronic illness is a story of personal courage and perseverance. It is also a rebuke to the economic policy of her husband and the GOP he now leads.

Since she was diagnosed in 1998 Ann Romney has been treated by Dr. Howard Weiner of Harvard's Brigham and Women's Hospital. He is a leading researcher in the field and his research has been funded repeatedly by the Federal Government through grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

In other words, Ann Romney has enjoyed the benefits of cutting-edge research made possible by public spending of the sort her husband, his running mate Paul Ryan and the rest of the GOP have denounced and promised to slash.

At stake here isn't just Ann Romney and her MS. Anyone who has survived cancer, who lives with diabetes, who has been infected with HIV, anyone immunized against once-common childhood diseases has benefited directly or indirectly from medical research funded by the Federal government. That's practically all of us.

The Federal role in our health care extends beyond funding research. People living in the South no longer have to worry about getting malaria because federally-funded eradication programs eliminated the problem. From 1947-1971, the Hill-Burton Hospital Survey and Construction Act funded nearly 11,000 projects which created over one half million new hospital beds, especially in areas like the South where such infrastructure was rare.

In fact, our federally-funded public health system is so good we largely take it for granted and have for a long time. As long ago as 1951, Oscar Ewing, director of the Federal Security Agency, said, "Our public health programs protect the health of the people in a thousand ways, often so silently and efficiently that most people do not realize that without them they would hardly last out the week."

In addition to keeping us healthy and finding treatments for disease, the Federal role in health care has been good for the economy. Federal dollars often fund basic research and clinical trials. In turn, pharmaceutical companies, medical device makers and others capitalize on the results.

The private sector does not -- and most likely will never -- fund that kind of basic research. It takes too long to be profitable and is simply too costly. And much of the research that is done in the private sector, like in pharmaceuticals, is built on a foundation laid first by publicly-funded work.

Measure it this way: Though this year's winners were from Japan and Great Britain, since 2001, 14 American researchers have won the Nobel Prize in Medicine. Exactly none of them did their ground-breaking research in the private sector.

Managing chronic disease, as Ann Romney must, can be a lonely proposition. I can speak from personal experience. But you never do it alone. In addition to the support from loved ones and friends we in the United States are lucky to have thousands of health care providers and researchers working to make our task easier and more effective, and perhaps someday even to cure us. You don't cure MS through hard work and personal initiative.

There is no such thing as a "medical miracle." The fact that we can live longer with dangerous diseases and no longer fear that our children will get polio is a consequence of thousands upon thousands of hours of research, years and years doctors and nurses spend in training, and state-of-the-art medical infrastructure. And those things have been made possible in large part because of Federal investments.

Perhaps Mitt Romney doesn't understand this history, or what is at stake for the future of American medical and scientific research. But when he talks blithely about across the board budget-cutting, I wonder whether he recognizes just how close to home those cuts might come.

Steven Conn is a professor of history at Ohio State University where he edits the online journal "Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective." He is also the editor of the new book "To Promote the General Welfare: The Case for Big Government."