All the pie for humans!

Jun 05 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

I finally got a chance to watch the discussion that grew out of the #modelorg debate last week. You can skip about the first ten minutes of scientists just trying to figure out how to use the internet and get right to the point: @MTomasson thinks it's silly to spend federal dollars on anything that can't be in clinical use with a year or two, unless funds are unlimited.

It will surprise almost no one that I think that's the dumbest, most short-term, view of science funding I have heard in quite some time.

Let's assume for a second that we're just talking about NIH*. With the announcement yesterday that NIH is going to have to kill 700 grants in the coming fiscal, it's clear that things are getting tighter in the short term, not better. From a "boots on the ground" perspective, I can understand the interest in focusing the remaining dollars on work that is clinically relevant in the foreseeable future. But let's make a sports analogy to that situation.

Basically we're talking about a baseball team deciding to trade away all it's farm system for the big-contract super stars of other teams. In the short term the team is stacked and plows through the competition, producing results. But in a couple of years those stars decline and there's no one waiting in the system to step up. Maybe you can throw money at a few free agents, but you end up with a bloated payroll and a mediocre team.

If we concentrate resources on research in humans that we can get into the clinic next week we're going to wipe out entire fields that pave the way for understanding how humans and their diseases even work. As was pointed out in the discussion, there is virtually no disease treatment that did not go through an animal system before being applied to humans. Yes, part of that has to do with FDA regulations, but the MAIN reason is because many model organisms are tractable in ways that humans aren't. Some discoveries don't translate to humans, but so what? Most clinically relevant innovation wouldn't have been worked out in a human system to begin with. Our generation times aren't exactly good for a research model and there are apparently some issues with knock-out studies, I hear.

When times get tight everyone wants to justify the solution that best suits their particular goals, but some proposals are more blatantly self-serving and egregiously arrogant than others.

* Mostly because clinical people aren't aware other science happens.

27 responses so far

  • It's a waste of time even listening to what individual scientists claim is the "right way" to do research, because--what a fucken surprise!--it always turns out to be exactly how each of them does their own research.

  • Hermitage says:

    Yes, because every major health breakthrough ever has been from scientists discovering exactly what they were looking for in immediately translational work... Not to mention translational work has it's own unproductive, soul-killing logjam of useful stuff that gets shit on because the profit margins aren't high enough to bring to production.

  • Dave says:

    ...it always turns out to be exactly how each of them does their own research.

    Exactly. It is desperately sad that this kind of "culling" attitude has developed in the research community lately. Not surprising, just sad and depressing. These douches don't mention "culling" when they make these kind of statements, but that's what it boils down to. Attacks on basic research - however they're dressed-up - are pathetic, short-sighted, ignorant and, honestly, quite scary.

  • I hate baseball. Thus, while I think you are on point, I reject your analogy en face.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Squint and pretend I said Hockey. Between the Yankees and the Phillies, we just have some really nice real live baseball examples right now.

  • Hey, PFL, really appreciate your engagement, but I'm afraid I apparently did not make my point clearly:

    NOT " it's silly to spend federal dollars on anything that can't be in clinical use with a year or two"

    My point is: current funding crunch comes in the face of scientific community's complete FAILURE to COMMUNICATE the importance of basic scientific research. As a community, we biomedical researchers decided the best way to get $$$ while avoiding the equally hard work of hav ing to explain WHY we really need funding is to LIE about how research is done.

    The lie: "give us money because we are on the verge of a breakthrough that will cure grandma."

    My view: we need to focus on Rule #5 (http://www.velominati.com/the-rules/) and start explaining to the public that basic research is ABSOLUTELY CRITICAL and at the same time is LONG TERM. If researchers want money to do basic research that is...ABSOLUTELY CRITICAL...we need to work on asking for that money WITHOUT LYING about the time frame. Most people want SHORT TERM gains. These people are the ones paying our bills. There is a huge need for short term, disease focused research. Short term, disease focused research is CLINICAL RESEARCH DONE WITH HUMANS.

    Let's hang on the Rule #5 and get to work on both basic science AND clinical research without fairy tales of how they are the same thing.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    MT, If that was indeed your point, then it was certainly not clear from the discussion. Maybe if I went back and watched with this in mind I could fish it out, but I heard mostly comments about the need for money to back the clinical stuff. Even if we wade through the comments about translational medicine being "a scam" (and I guess I can see there where you mean the "sell" of translational medicine is the scam), it still seems like your focus is curing the grandmas of today at the cost of tomorrow's grandmas.

    Maybe that's just how I saw it.

  • miko says:

    MT, that was also not my take away from your comments, but then I stopped listening after you said basic science was the stuff already in textbooks.

  • Dave says:

    ..and start explaining to the public that basic research is ABSOLUTELY CRITICAL and at the same time is LONG TERM

    Yeh, but in my view this needs to be framed in terms of jobs and the economy, not cures and personalized medicine. In my opinion, a fundamental mistake Collins and the NIH has made in this whole debacle is in talking too much about the science and not enough about jobs and the impact of a declining budget on the economy etc. Sounds stupid, I know, but we are talking about lawmakers here.

  • musclestumbler says:

    @MT, @Isis, @everybody- I hate to say this, but all of this hand-wringing, grand statements, twitter wars, meetups and "Mine's bigger than yours" or "the system, man" statements (Oh look! Let's be independent b/c study panels are idiots and the system will never work forever from this point forward) is keeping us from our primary mission: Get in the lab. Get some science done. Call it basic, translational, (cue heavenly music) clinical, whatever. Just get it done. Roll up your sleeves and get out of your offices and do it yourself if you have to. Just get it done.

    You can scream and cry and plead and bargain and talk until the cows come home, but the funding situation is what it is. It's not going to change. Period. Full stop, end of story. If you don't want to play the game by these new rules, then step out and double your salary by taking that night manager position at Wal-Mart. The science will get done whether your name's on it or not. If it's truly important, someone will discover it. With or without you.

    BTW, I don't care how much you all worship at the foot of Tuschl. Cell-based discoveries based purely on RNAi are still crap and will always be artifactual unless verified in a true, multicellular, genetic, in vivo model. So model organisms will always be critical for research. We are not to blame for the funding crunch.

    Now if you'll excuse me, I have a DNA prep to finish.

  • Dennis says:

    @musclestumbler yeah, I don't think that would work.

  • Dave says:

    BTW, I don't care how much you all worship at the foot of Tuschl. Cell-based discoveries based purely on RNAi are still crap and will always be artifactual unless verified in a true, multicellular, genetic, in vivo model. So model organisms will always be critical for research. We are not to blame for the funding crunch.

    Just like CPP was saying.........

  • musclestumbler says:

    @Dennis- What won't work? The DNA prep had a nice high yield, and I can use it in the next step.

  • Muscle: "the funding situation is what it is. It's not going to change. Period. Full stop, end of story. "

    Since the funding situation has changed significantly several times over the past 15 years, this statement, made with utmost conviction, is demonstrably false. Full stop. Good luck with your plasmid preps. Those were the days.

    Miko: Wow, sorry I turned you off so hard. I need to work on my media skills! Pretty sure I didn't say basic science is stuff "already in text books." I did say that basic science strives to write the text books. I hold my own work up to this standard (I don't measure up well). Is this paper, is this project, going to lead to understanding that will change what is written in The Molecular Biology of the Cell?

    Somehow, my belief that basic and clinical research are separate spheres came across as not supportive of basic research. Nothing could be further from my view.

    Appreciate this dialogue....underscores to me more than ever the need for discussion between different silos.

  • musclestumbler says:

    @MT: Since the funding situation has changed significantly several times over the past 15 years, this statement, made with utmost conviction, is demonstrably false.

    Overall, the trend has been down. Yes there have been blips upward (the stimulus funding that went through, hurricane relief, pie-in-the-sky-rich-get-richer brain fishing expeditions, etc.), but the simple fact is that Congress has no appetite for increasing funding. With the current makeup of Congress and redistricting, this situation is not going back to the glorious salad days when NIH doubled every year, and people could delude themselves into taking positions funded near-exclusively through soft money. Maybe things will change after 10 years or so, but right now, at present, within the renewal timeframe of all of our current funding, the situation is not going to change. So we need to adapt.

    And I agree with Miko: I heard the exact same statement from you in that webcast. This is a symptom of an overall problem: We need better media skills. All of us. Our current problem is not completely but partially due to the fact that our media/outreach/ability to explain to Grandma/ skills completely and totally suck to the last individual. Biology needs a Neil DeGrasse Tyson rather than Jim Watson's racist animated corpse. My larger point is that the energy that is being spent on cyber navel-gazing and twitter wars could be better spent in one of two areas: 1. Data, Data, Data (You, too can be in the lab and be a PI, and still publish. Just try it), and 2. outreach skills. Because what I've seen, quite frankly isn't very effective if you can't get your point across to other biologists without misunderstandings.

  • @muscletumbler I meant that sending PIs back to the workbench will not solve the situation. It would probably slow down the progress. PIs should do what they were doing here in public: figuring out what to do and being political in the science community. This is very important.

  • musclestumbler says:

    @Dennis- I'm sorry if you misunderstood my point (ironic b/c I'm railing about lack of clarity above...). What I was getting at is what's already happening: the workforce is shrinking. Some of my colleagues are forced to go with significantly reduced personnel, which is necessitating a re-think of the PI's role. The current model, whereby the PI can safely ensconce themselves in an office, write grants and papers, and only emerge to wade through the lab triumphantly surveying the troops, is unsustainable. Labs are going to shrink. We are going to have to get off of our high horses and start reacquainting ourselves with the bench, b/c hiring a fleet of postdocs isn't going to be in the cards much longer.

    There are good labs, publishing labs that are funded with smaller and smaller grants. These people are sustainable because everyone is at the bench. There are PIs that teach a full load in a 60/40 teaching/research appointment, work at the bench daily, and still publish and get grants. If you say that that's impossible, then you are sadly mistaken.

  • @musclestumbler I was aware that you weren't fully serious. As you realized I was lacking a clear statement of your point. This one was pretty clear, thanks.

    What I see at my place is, that PIs already work long hours w/o even being involved in college education (it's a research institute) and that in principle PIs need R01s to be able to keep their labs. We already run on big and small non-government grants. In fact, according to our webpage, more than 60% of the institutes funding is private.

    But since more labs will apply for private funding, now, the competition increases for us, too. It is not like there are vast unused funds waiting to be tapped.

    I might be mistaken that it would be impossible to run 'a lab' with small grants, some undergrads and a PI getting his hands dirty. But I don't think this could be a standard approach.

  • musclestumbler says:

    @Dennis- I can certainly sympathize... I spent my postdoc years in a private institute, one where the possession of an R01 was a requirement (not an option) for promotion/tenure ascension. The pressure that some of those PIs are facing now is amazing, intense, and all-encompassing.

    As you can tell by my name, I'm in muscle biology. The go-to for us has always been the MDA, while not overly flush with cash, a nice reliable private foundation that served as a bulwark against reduced paylines from the NIH. However in recent years, the tap for "basic" (i.e., non-clinical) research from MDA has all but vanished: they refuse to fund any work that does not have an immediate (i.e., 1-2 year window) clinical impact. That's certainly within their rights; it's good PR, and it's in their mission. However, this has left a lot of muscle labs really, really hamstrung. I shudder when I think of the debates in Congress and the vindictive bile that I hear from talk radio along the lines of: "private companies and foundations will take up the slack; NIH doesn't need to fund basic research".

  • " We need better media skills. All of us. Our current problem is not completely but partially due to the fact that our media/outreach/ability to explain to Grandma/ skills completely and totally suck to the last individual."

    It's hard to do this when we're all in the lab and then headed to the night shift at Wal-Mart, eh?

  • musclestumbler says:

    @Isis- perhaps you should take off the mask.. you didn't read what I wrote. I stated that if you can't adjust to the new funding reality, then you should go to Wal-Mart. We need serious people that know how to communicate. And I'd rather that a bench scientist did it.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Curious the focus on Isis' identity. I think she's earned a little respect there, folks.

    Her point is valid though - a PI at the bench is one spending less time writing proposals or getting papers out, which support said proposals. It's an inefficient use of time.

  • Yeah, I still don't get the point. Should I be at the bench or communicating or hussling for all that caaa-aaaa-aaash? In an ideal world, how would you have me spend my time?

    And I read just fine with the mask on. It has eye holes.

  • Spiny Norman says:

    "It's a waste of time even listening to what individual scientists claim is the "right way" to do research, because--what a fucken surprise!--it always turns out to be exactly how each of them does their own research."

    Bitter HaHa. ha. ha.

    I would not say that. If I had done research the right way, I would have done a LOT more experiments that gave wondrous answers.

  • Spiny Norman says:

    As for bench work, the single most productive scientist I know (H-index well north of 125) teaches a big undergrad class, serves on committees as much as the rest of us, and works at the bench every single day.

  • [...] down last night. I couldn't watch it live, but I caught up with it this morning. We talked about the first installment two weeks ago, and this one is just as juicy. Tomasson makes a good straight guy foil for [...]

Leave a Reply