Over the last decade or so a new group of biomedical/disease research funders have burst on the scene getting quite a bit of attention – the self-named and self-promoting “venture philanthropists.” Styling themselves after high risk venture capitalists VPs are supposed to be doing something very different from what I imagine must be the plain, old, non-adjectified philanthropists. In practice, from what I can see, the VPs do what most of us in biomedical philanthropy do – look for good ideas and fund them in the hope of moving the knowledge ball further down the field. They are not uncovering the “genius in the garage” or finding some hidden gem no one else has been able to find. They often fund researchers at the top biomedical institutions – don’t have to venture too far afield to find them! VPs hold meetings, sponsor workshops, make grants. In many ways their playbook looks much like the one used by the plain old Ps. The risk for VPs (and of course VP is all about high risk, novelty, outside the box, on the edge, pushing the envelope – you get the picture) is the lure of what is presented as a bold move and sometimes, (to continue along with the sports metaphors I imagine are fairly popular in VP strategy sessions) they simply fall for the long lob or the field goal too far. Intentions are one thing, reality is another. But hey – in the game of public relations, you DO get points for trying!
I for one am tired of theVPs. More importantly, I think they do not do science, philanthropy, or patients any good.
For us plain old Ps it is always a bit worrisome to think that we do not yet have treatments or cures for some of the most devastating and complex diseases affecting humans because we haven’t been stamping our feet forcefully enough. Is advancing (or accelerating, VPs love the word accelerating) much needed clinical interventions just a matter of demanding them of the “blue ribbon” panel munching Danish at a fancy resort! How terrible if all this time the plain Ps just didn’t know that wishing (or asserting) could makes things so. Don’t get me wrong – I am not saying that there may not be ways that private investment could spur clinical advances. I just don’t believe there is A way. What we are all doing – VPs and plain old Ps – are experiments. We should try different approaches; this after all is the beauty of philanthropy. Private funders should represent a diversity of thinking on trying to figure out how to take knowledge into practice. Because if anyone asserts they know how to do this – they are wrong.
Part of the problem is that there are yawning knowledge gaps between research and care. The goals of the research enterprise are not even matched to clinical needs. The most promising preclinical work can fall apart when put up against real diseases in real people. We may need some radical new ideas – or we may need just some basic knowledge. We may even need a better understanding of exactly what it is we are trying to do. Curing cancer is not a real goal. Monolithic “cancer” doesn’t exist. Real risk is thinking a slogan is a research goal. What we really need is honesty – what do we know, what don’t we know? What assumptions are we making about disease that are just wrong? Are we studying human disease – or are we focused on the experimental models we’ve created? When funders demand progress – researchers will respond with what looks like progress. We’ll have mice, and chips. We’ll get scans and cascades. We’ll be told that we have to break silos, invest in career development, fund collaborations, host a meeting (and the more exotic the location the more senior the participants).
So whether you’re a new VP or just a plain old P – be humble. Be skeptical of claims. Be even more skeptical of your own claims.
This week, the Society for Neuroscience is holding its annual meeting in Chicago. Everyone who is anyone in the field neuroscience, along with 30,000 of their friends, postdocs, and students will converge to hear hundreds of presentations, view thousands of scientific posters, and race importantly from committee business meeting to committee business meeting squeezing in some hits at social event to social event. So why am I, a neuroscientist working for a private funder of neuroscience research and living 250 miles from Chicago not at Neuroscience? Why, if given the choice between going to Neuroscience and having root canal without anesthesia would I choose the dentist office?
In part, my answer says a lot what I think is problematic in the current climate of academic research.
1) Most attendees are charging every expense against research grants while bemoaning the lack of research funding. (Note: even gobs of stimulus funding has not diminished the academic indoor sport of whining for dollars – the behavior is so ingrained in academic scientists that nothing shuts it off.)
2) The atmosphere tends towards self-conscious self importance. The important and powerful neuroscientists are readily distinguished by their plumage of colored ribbons hanging from their meeting badge. A lack of ribbons marks one’s relative anonymity (and lack of clout) in the Society.
3) A depressingly large number of presentations – both platform and poster – will after the first few hours, sound and look alike.
4) The highlighted big name talks are primarily geared to attract press coverage – with little concern about the accuracy of the results. The primary goal being to engender public enthusiasm (and ideally funding) for neuroscience – and not necessarily understanding.
To be fair, Neuroscience does serve some positive purposes. Old friends catch up. Graduate students rub shoulders with some of their heroes. Jobs are offered and accepted. Business is accomplished. The local economy gets a little bump. One friend, defending why he was going – told me he found it “humbling” to see the size and breadth of the field. I guess. I just find it crowded and boring. And if anything really exciting gets presented – I’ll read it in the paper with my morning joe in the comfort of my own home.
Each year, the announcement of the Nobel Prizes in Chemistry, Physics, and Physiology and Medicine creates an opportunity for scientists to capitalize on the (temporary) public interest and lobby for increased science funding. If scientists at US institutions essentially sweep the prizes (and this year is one of those), scientists in other countries wail, gnash their teeth, and exhort their governments to increase funding. If the US does not dominate the prizes, American academia howls about lost prestige and the inevitable loss of economic competitiveness that will come back to bite administrations if research funding does not increase. When, in years like this one, the science prizes are awarded for work tending towards the more basic end of the research spectrum, we hear calls to invest in undirected, unfettered, blue skies research – because we just never know when something is going to turn out to be interesting.
Really, is this true? Or do such statements reflect part of the mythology science likes to feed funders and the public?
I propose that the prizes this year were awarded to work done:
1) A long time ago (Physics) at an institution known to allow unfettered research – but was the scope of the work performed at Bell Labs completely undirected? A review of much of the most celebrated work at Bell Labs indicates a shared theme – how can information be packaged and transmitted. It also took a lot of post-discovery research to make digital images commercially viable.
2) Over time (Physiology and Medicine and Chemistry) – during which much interest has been generated and many labs have contributed beyond the initial discoveries. Rather than a surprise, it has been anticipated that the topics of telomerase and ribosomes would eventually garner Nobels. It has and will take much work and investment to translate these basic findings into applications.
To point out that Nobel prizes often recognize original contributions that then take the work of many other individuals to expand on and develop does not in any way detract from the excitement in and importance of the work lauded. But it does raise the question of whether these prizes provide justification for investing in basic science research preferentially? Rather, should it not be the entire enterprise of research and entrepreneurship that should be celebrated and supported? How many basic research findings DO NOT win prizes, jumpstart new fields of research, or yield new products? How much undirected, unfettered basic science research is simply gray, rather than blue, skies – uninteresting, derivative, and unimportant?
Ah, we just never know.