Panel: Redefining discovery for the 21st century
Thanks to technological advances over the last 20 years, we now have an incredible set of tools for conducting medical research in ways unavailable before, helping drive new discoveries. While technology has come a long way, the system of financial support for basic scientific research remains out of step. At the 2015 Partnering for Cures conference, Rudolph Tanzi of Harvard moderated a panel discussion of new considerations for advancing the medical research in the 21st century.
Shiva Ayyadurai, CEO of CytoSolve, began the conversation with the idea that we need to rethink how we identify and "anoint" scientific talent among young people, and avoid limiting the scope of where we look for innovation to such institutions such as Harvard and MIT. Ayyadurai mentioned that there are many kids like himself – the inventor and patent holder of email – who might invent incredible things, and we should not overlook them because of what they look like or their academic pedigree.
Building on this point, the discussion moved toward other challenges that discourage talented people from pursuing careers in science. The severely constrained environment for funding research has given many young researchers pause about pursuing a career in science. The average age that a young investigator receives his or her first National Institutes of Health grant to support independent academic research is 42. This is a long time to wait for the first whiff of career stability. Even before getting to this stage, young scientists have only a 10 percent chance of securing an academic position because of limited opportunities resulting from the tenure system in place at many universities. Jessica Polka, a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard University, explained "this creates a conflict between wanting to do what we love with the highly competitive environment that we are in."
Ayyadurai challenged the institution of tenure by saying "Why is there tenure? Who is anointing whom?" Keith Yamamoto, of the University of California, San Francisco, added to the challenge: "Bureaucracies like tenure in general are a very conservative force, and one can argue that such bureaucracies exist as a way to conserve themselves. We certainly need to re-evaluate these bureaucracies because they are holding back innovation."
Given that there is a dearth of academic positions, alternative career paths for young scientists should be encouraged -- but they are not. Trainees are often penalized or shunned from academia if they decide to pursue positions in other sectors, such as pharma, government, or nonprofit. Polka explained that because of this, trainees are rarely "given the opportunity to develop the skills necessary to pursue careers outside of academia."
The panelists agreed that by changing this negative incentive there is actually an opportunity to strengthen the field by encouraging scientists to spend portions of their careers in other sectors. This would provide another layer of training for scientists that is particularly lacking for many academicians. A broader background would help them understand how to translate discovery from the lab bench to the bedside and commercial markets.
Cedars-Sinai's Keith Black underscored this point by explaining why there is such a large translational gap from discovery to commercialization in medical research. He said that this can be attributed to two major deficiencies: "Scientists are not often aware of clinical issues that surround the disease process, primarily because there is a lack of robust communication between academic scientists and clinicians." He also said, "We don't have a good system for the bursting body of information and discovery in research labs to figure out how to apply them in the clinic and then commercialize them."
Murrary Stewart of Pfizer echoed this point: "Lots of academics have a good idea, but they don't understand how to actually develop the drug. One way to solve this gap is to set up partnerships with this knowledge." While this may seem like an obvious solution, the problem is that the current academic system does not incentivize the sharing of ideas. In a system where "publishing is the main currency for people who want to maintain a career in science," said Polka, sharing ideas prior to publication can have enormous implications on prospects of receiving tenure or government funding. Black added that we will continue to stifle true innovation without a new and efficient way to change how we think about ideas and intellectual property, so that we share ideas and get other people with fresh eyes looking at the problem, particularly in the form of crowdsourcing. "It's amazing what you can accomplish if you don't care who gets the credit for it. When I learned this, my productivity flourished. But it is one of the hardest things to teach trainees."
Yamamoto agreed with Black's point on collaboration and said that there are two additional points that we need to integrate into training to drive the paradigm shift in how the next generation of scientists both conduct and discuss science. The first is that biomedical research is undergoing a major transformation -- from being largely descriptive to quantitative -- so young scientists must be encouraged to take a more quantitative approach to solving problems. We also need to teach that the era of focusing on a single scientific variable is over. Major untapped areas of discovery in the current era involve highly complex systems that do not lend themselves to the single-variable science of the past. Scientists must test multiple variables within complex systems, which will often require collaboration with others with diverse expertise.
Overall, Black summed up the charge nicely: "We need to rethink our values, incentives, and drivers for our scientists, and reconfigure this system so that we are freed to do things that we are not free to do in the current paradigm."