Are we agile enough to succeed?
In my role as executive vice chair for the Department of Medicine and senior associate dean for the School of Medicine, I keep wondering whether we have the creativity and will to fundamentally change how we do biomedical research.
When I was training at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, everybody was siloed. You succeeded or failed by your own efforts. If you succeeded and obtained extramural National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding, you were great. If you didn’t, you lost out. Regardless, you were working on your own.
Typically, you might be studying some unique molecule, like a hormone or receptor, trying to discover its genetic origin and mechanism of action. You might even study this same molecule for 15-20 years. You would write papers and gain a national and international reputation, and your institution would benefit.
I don’t think that approach works in biomedical research any longer. I have become convinced that a single investigator studying a single molecule is too slow and narrow. Funding agencies, whether they are federal entities or foundations, are not enthusiastic about supporting that kind of work.
Who will get funding?
They will fund comprehensive approaches to important health problems, but here is the rub: individual investigators may be superb at one task—for example, isolating a molecule and discovering how it is produced. But that same individual will not have the skill-set to investigate that molecule’s biophysical properties; its measurements in blood or tissue; its relationship to a big health problem like diabetes or obesity; its study in clinical research; how to modulate its action; how to develop biotechnology around the molecule for human trials; much less the knowledge of how to apply their research to a sick patient or to society. It’s just not possible for a single investigator to have so many skills.
Researchers are going to have to ask questions that are broader than “How does one molecule work?” Instead, they will have to ask “How does this molecule contribute to or conspire to create a medical problem?” And we’re going to have to look for creative answers with teams of people, working together, representing different areas of expertise.
What’s the next step?
We have to move from the traditional model of individual research to programmatic research. We’re going to have to be teams with a wide range of expertise to study not just the molecule, but also how it contributes to health and disease so that new medicinal treatments can be created to preserve health or intervene in disease. Then we will need to go out into the big wide world and apply this knowledge in such a way that helps patients and improves society.
The American public isn’t against us studying the molecules that cause obesity, for example. But they are going to object if we aren’t thinking broadly enough to take those molecules, put everything we learn together and discover some new programmatic approaches to combat obesity. The same is true for lung cancer, heart disease, leukemia, you name it.
What’s our future?
A vision of programmatic research was part of our thinking in the creation of the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus
at its inception. We built a campus that, in its very design, fosters collaboration, interdisciplinary discovery and flexibility among researchers who respect each other.
But here is the second rub. What we didn’t anticipate at the turn of the century, when President Clinton doubled the NIH budget, was that this healthy growth in funding would not only cease but decrease. For the last decade, biomedical researchers have been “on the ropes” and struggling to maintain individual research or build programmatic research. It’s easy to create big programmatic research on a big budget, not so easy to do it now on a restricted budget.
A natural inclination of researchers when dollars get tight might be to return to the old silo model, every person out for him or herself. I’m proud to say we haven’t seen that happen on our campus. I think our people know, from their own experience, that if you go out just for “me,” you’re going to fail. No matter how good you are, that approach no longer works. Researchers here understand the benefits of getting five—or 10—bright minds working together to solve a problem or make discoveries.
In Colorado, we have the kind of history and ethos that fosters innovation through collaboration. Today, on our campus, I don’t hear individual researchers asking “How can I be successful?” Instead, we are asking how “we,” the CU School of Medicine at the Anschutz Medical Campus, can continue to excel. I think we have the human capital and intellectual horsepower, but do we have the will to be agile collaborators?
Published: July 2, 2012