Just when you thought it was safe to go into the water – a new development in the pro/anti science wars is heating things up. Yes, embryonic stem cell research is back in the news. And with this will come all the heated rhetoric — once again the vested interests on either side of the question will pit destroying life against saving lives. I have never been able to strongly support embryonic stem cell research. Why? Because I do not think stem cell research will produce cures for all the diseases for which promises are being made. SO, I think there is a serious ethical dilemma concerning stem cell research. But it differs from the one that garners all the talk. I think much of the resources spent on embryonic stem cells AS CURES – not as basic biological explorations – are being squandered. Putting too many eggs in the embryonic stem cell research basket steals attention, intellectual power, and financial support from approaches that could be much more useful and efficiacious. The wonderful thing that occured during the last decade of limited funding has been the diversity of cell types individuals have selected for study and the clever techniques that have emerged. I also think there is one sure-fired way to make certain most of the embryonic stem-cell research being done will never translate into medical treatments -let the NIH fund it. With private support – researchers promising cures will have their feet held to the fire. With hefty NIH support, stem cell research will go the way of most disease-specific experimental research carried out in vitro with cell culture and in vivo with rodent models. There are also serious ethical issues about the disconnect between what scientists promise (couched in the long inferential distances of the if, if, then, if, if, then… arguments) versus what patient groups hear and consequently expect. Private funders – particularly those that are disease-specific charities – have a real role to play in bringing the important issues to the fore and refocusing the discussions on what really matters scientifically and practically.
For years, amongst my funding colleagues and in scientific settings I have questioned whether we needed a serious re-think about the Alzheimer Disease research dogma. Certain things about the amyloid hypothesis and the clinical disease just do not add up — and to my mind AD has become the classic example of the MODEL of the disease becoming the focus of research, in place of the actual disease. I also have long believed that once a system is tipped too far it can not recover. Recent news about AD drug discover is supporting these contentions. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/18/business/18lilly.html
The time has come for philanthropic organizations with an interest in neurological disease to start challenging the status quo.
If there is one overused idea voiced by foundations and charities supporting disease-related biomedical research it is that private funding should preferentially fund “the risky research.” I am never sure what this phrase means, particularly as I often hear it used to describe efforts to support ongoing work in fairly mainstream research questions.
In reality, I think any organization supporting disease-related biomedical research is already taking a certain kind of risk. The risks are not that the work will not get done, or that papers will not get published, or that the idea will turn out to be wrong. The risks are that the research will get done, the papers will be published, and the idea will just join the thousands of other unusable pieces of information biomedical research generates by the reams. The biggest risk of all is that we really do not learn anything new.
Questioning the status quo and funding the development of heterodox ideas is risky. There is the risk that the status quo is right. There is the risk that the orthodoxy is correct. To me taking this risk is worth it. You may actually generate a new idea. At the very least you may find out the new idea is not as good as the old idea. But at least you learn something.
The news that Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are challenging their fellow billionaires to give generously is getting a lot of media attention. Much like the prior landmarks of the expansion of organized philanthropy (e.g. Rockefeller, Carnegie, and others at the transition from the 19th to the 20th century) the transition from the 20th to the 21st Century will witness another HUGE expansion of philanthropic giving. Are we ready for it? Philanthropy can do much good. But it can also be opportunity squandered if the funds are not 1) seen as social capital invested for the common good, 2) aimed at identifying and solving root causes of problems, and 3) monitored carefully with respect to what can truly be accomplished. The infusion of large sums of philanthropic dollars can have a dramatic effect – skewing the interests and missions of the recipients of this largesse in ways that could take decades to recover. There are vast problems we need to be solving – and the funds can be extremely effective – or not. It will take bold leadership and it will take thoughtful, humble, leadership — these characteristics are actually not incompatible. Philanthropic leadership need to be bold enough to challenge the status quo and question deeply cherished assumptions. ANd, at the same time, philanthropic leadership must be humble enough to question its OWN cherished assumptions and deeply help beliefs. I wish the Billionaires CLub much success.