Another year?

Surely a fundamental time constant has slipped. The years are going by much quicker than I remember. It seems like only weeks ago that I wrote the 2009 end of year message.
I came across a phrase while reading about a recent program evaluation posted on the Keck Foundation website that has me thinking about the ways Foundations determine grant outcomes. Although much of the evaluation committee findings summarized on Keck’s website was the usual high praise one expects when scientists review the private funding of science – the observation that Keck had also funded some “noble failures” could not but catch the eye. What is a noble failure? And what does it mean to a FOundation to have a few of these in their portfolio. I suppose “noble failure” describes work of promise that didn’t quite pan out. It is encouraging that Foundations funding science and traditionally claiming that they can and do take risks – actually taking risks. I do think attempting difficult work has a certain nobility. But do such efforts deserve to be saddled with the value-laden term failure. Isn’t it good science to tackle difficult problems in ways that might not immediately succeed? Don’t we gain valuable insights that help us try again along different paths? For some reason “noble failures” may me sad for the researchers who reached, and tried, and did not quite succeed – YET. Probably they are also not the kind that become easily discouraged. Or so we hope.

Approaching Geezer-hood

Recently, at a small scientific meeting, a colleague and I be-moaned the loss of the good (bad?) old days of scientific conferences when questions from the floor were not quite as polite as today and would, at times, devolve into knock-down, drag’em out arguments. Knowing full well that any observation beginning with “remember…” marks you as a geezer we both were willing to admit that maybe it was we who had changed, not the meetings, and that perhaps the passage of time had altered our memories. Still, we couldn’t shake our beliefs that there was a time – we tried to create a chronology; definitely pre-1990′s – when questions from the floor were often pointed and sharp. As a student preparing to give a talk at conferences one would try to anticipate from what direction the questions would come and be ready. It was never possible. Inevitably someone always asked the question that would, no doubt about it, have you back at the bench and hard at it when you returned to the lab. We both could not remember in those days the softballing that is now commonplace. Particularly irksome is the typical remark after a rather mundane and artless presentation: “thank you for that interesting presentation…”.
So what’s our beef? It is not that we resent the kindler, gentler land conferences have become. It is that we miss the rigor of real scientific questioning. We regret the loss of standards and the new acceptance that all research is good research. We have lost something. Something important. Because rigor, and standards, and hard questions make science better.

Giving Thanks

Thanks to all the far-seeing individuals, like Mr. James S. McDonnell, who established private foundations and dedicated their personal wealth to advance the common good. I have mentioned numerous times that one truly wonderful aspect of the strong American tradition of philanthropy is that it provides for distributed decision making rather than having all support derive from a central government or a state- established religion. In the sciences this is particularly important as philanthropic dollars can provide support for those with ideas departing from the scientific orthodoxy and for individuals who may want to revisit common wisdom assumptions (particularly those based on limited data).
The individuals and families establishing private foundations did not have to dedicate large portions of their wealth to charitiable purposes. That they did so is an act we should all be grateful for – because we all have benefited, even if we may not be aware of how. Again, when it comes to the philanthropic support of science – two great traditions were essentially born and came of age together — american science and american philanthropy. I sincerely hope the great tradition continues to flourish!

A loss of discernment

Increasingly I get the feeling that foundations supporting scientific research are overly aligned by the insidious “you are either with us against us” rhetoric of academic scientists, particularly those who want to trade the aloof ivory tower for the sandbox of science policy. Philanthropy should be reluctant to yield its ‘third sector’ identity – meaning it is not government and it is not business. Even in support for scientific research – philanthropy’s value, considering its relatively small size – lies in its independent system of decision making. It has become unfashionable to question science. Any criticism is interpreted as giving to solace to the enemy – a term that in a rather circular kind of argument seems to apply to anyone who questions science. The undertone is, of course that only the far right fringe has a problem with science. Overall, defensiveness is not good for science – particularly when the issues intersect with social values, social norms, and in many cases the health, education, and self-understanding of all of us. it is time for researchers and third sector funders to have honest, sophisticated conversations on why it is that problems do or do not yield to our current knowledge. Everything should be on the table and open to scrutiny.

Getting grayer

Is it just my imagination or are junior scientists getting older and older? Certain meetings that I used to attend that were usually showcasing younger scientists now seem to be stages for those well-past even the kindest effort to classify as “young.” The fact that I have noticed this – as my age (like the price of milk; although the causal relationship has not yet been established) has also altered upwards. Certainly there is data indicating that, over the past few decades, the age when one secures his or her first major independent grant has steadily krept upwards. There are lots of reasons for this statistic – but now I am beginning to wonder if the broader cultural phenomenon of keeping one’s progeny as children untile their 3rd or 4th decade is creeping into academic science. Maybe there is something akin to “helicopter mentoring” going on? Or maybe it is that as we older members of communities infantalize the younger by witholding responsibility via the witholding of opportunities is contributing to the gray tones of academic science?

Maybe it’s time to sweat the small stuff?

For those of us in philanthropy it is hard to keep up with the amount of private giving pouring into education – particularly in support of K-12 education. Where does the money go? At the same time school systems are announcing philanthropic and corporate gifts in the 10′s and 100′s of millions of dollars, communities are being asked to participate in ‘stuff the bus’ and other gimmicky appeals to stock classrooms with basic supplies. As adminstrators chase the big bucks classroom teachers are chasing crayons and craft paper. It just doesnt make sense.
Similarly – visit any academic medical center. The campuses are starting to rival Dubai. There is so much glass and steel, fountains and gardens, coffee shops and dining establishments. And yet – funders who support biomedical research via grants receive budgets requesting salaries for everyone involved, never mind the expressed need for funds to purchase computers, basic supplies, and rat chow.
What is going on? I, for one, would like some honest discussion about it all.

Building bridges

I am just back from a workshop in Almagro Spain that made a serious effort to open discussion among mathematicians, evolutionary ecologists, and cancer biologists. Although we are willing to use the language of ecology to talk about cancer – metaphor as theory – we tend to study cancer and to treat cancer as though it were NOT a complex, adaptive system evolving in response to selective environmental pressures. CHanging experimental paradigms is not easy — too much is already invested in the models, tools, theories, and approaches. We know what we can do and how to be ‘sucessful’ inside the methods we already have. As you can well imagine – individuals from each of the three disciplinary communities have their own languages and norms – nevermind an extensive knowledge base. It is not easy to step outside the normal frame in which you work and from which you view the world. The key is realizing that a change of frame does not mean throwing everything that has been done within a particular line of research away. The rich sets of genetic and molecular data can be very useful within an evolutionary ecological frame. But… if we do accept conceptual change then we have to willing to embrace experimental changes. And we also have to be willing to scrutinize the new concepts – are they exciting because they pose new questions or are they exciting because they will lead us to new endpoints. It is not worth changing the fram to arrive at the same destination. Private funders can help those willing to take the risks. And we should.

Stemming the tide

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.

Bring on the heterodox challenges!

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.
The time has come for philanthropic organizations with an interest in neurological disease to start challenging the status quo.

The risks of taking risks

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.