Monday, June 15, 2015

Shamelessly hijacking #DistractinglySexy for my own biomedical purposes

My apologies up front to the many people who are involved in the wide spectrum of conversations that are playing out in social media as a result of Tim Hunts recent comments: ( I apologize because I am going to hijack #DistractinglySexy with “other than gender” related issues that are starving for attention in the world of biomedical science.  The issues that I’m concerned with are not at all sexy. In fact, they are at the nadir of any lusty science related conversations. But right underneath the hashtag threshold, lies a very unhealthy biomedical ecosystem that is in desperate need for a meme, or some controversy that will bring as robust a reaction as that sentence or two from the forlorn Dr. Hunt.

I am going out on a limb here, but I bet the majority of people who don’t work in a lab are not familiar with the way that many biomedical scientists choose a field of study. My personal observations have led to the following 5 simple questions that need to be addressed in the funding cycle of an average American lab (Disclosure: I’ve only had ~ 15 years of experience in a hand full of labs, so take this as a peek through a small window of one scientists experiences):

1) First things first, what am I interested in?
a.     It needs to affect a large enough swath of people to be considered fundable.
b.     It needs to be sexy. Not gender sexy, but NSC sexy (Nature, Science, Cell). In other words, have some hint that if you knock it out of the ball park, you’ll be able to publish your work in a top tier journal. There is a sad truth that is being acknowledged as we speak, lots and I mean LOTS of science is not reproducible. But alas, if it’s published in a top journal, the scientist is one step closer to getting funded. I will not elaborate further, this is in and of itself the topic of numerous reports, here’s a hint:
2) Are there avenues to fund the studies needed to address my area of interest?
a.      If no, study a different subject (This is why I studied melanoma and not angiosarcoma as a postdoc. Living proof right here)
b.     If Yes, move on to question # 3
3) Do I already have enough data to prove that I can unequivocally publish work focused on my area of interest?
a.     If no, produce more data before writing for a grant to fund work you’ve already done
b.      If yes, move on to question #4
4) How can I get the most money by proposing to do work that I’ve already done?
a.     This applies to scientists at all stages of their careers. It’s all about the preliminary data. In other words, you need data to propose in your grant in order to prove that you will be successful in obtaining the data that you already have. Fun little cycle right?
b.     Hold some preliminary data back for the resubmission. If you don’t score well on a grant, you can often resubmit. If you can show that you have the ability to produce the data you are proposing to do by showing even more data that you are proposing, you could increase your chances of getting that grant. The beauty of holding back data is that you can slip it into the resubmission in a timely manner.
5) Perform research on a different topic than what you were funded to perform.
a.       Since you already have the data that you proposed to generate, once funded, many scientists pick up an entirely different project that is sometimes not even related to what they are funded to perform.
b.       Use the preliminary data that was generated after you obtained funding from your original grant to write for a different grant.  Return to step #3 and repeat until you stop publishing in top tier journals.

Questions for those outside the lab: A) Does this make any sense? B) Do you think this is the most efficient way to develop the knowledge base that we as a species need to develop in order to cure disease? C) Could there be a better way?

My 2 cents:
A) Yes. Here’s me working through the problem with my pragmatic hat on. With money dwindling from the NIH’s coffers, reviewers needs to be incredibly strict with the money they dole out. If you were the one reviewing a slew of grants, would you be more likely to give tax payer dollars to the grant that seems risky, might only help a handful of people (even if executed perfectly) and has scant data to support the aims, or would you be more inclined to give that money to someone who has data to convince you that they are able to produce solid publishable data on a topic that will help more people, ie, people who are hit by the diseases with the most prevalence.

What a conundrum. And man does it hurt to be on the David side of this battle as a patient with an exceedingly rare disease. I took stock of the landscape of biomedical research as a grad student and chose a sexy field of fundable science. It worked. But I left because I was convinced that I could do more with the little rock that I had in my hand other than tossing it up in the air while day dreaming.

B) Absolutely not. Think about it. Every lab needs to establish an independent area of expertise. To publish, you need to discover or describe something that no one else has figured out. Think that happens by scientists talking openly and collaboratively about their ideas? Nope. At least not in traditional academic medicine. You only need to know one word to understand why: Scoop. You can get scooped by scientists who hear about your unpublished work at conferences, by word of mouth, by “collaborators”, by reviewers who are reading your manuscript (by far the most nefarious).  Best way to not get scooped? Work in a little silo and keep your data SECRET until publication.

C) Yes! Here’s the good news. There are huge collaborative efforts that are aimed at generating massive data sets for all scientists to learn from. Here’s how it works: You need a group of scientists who are willing to work in total collaboration, no walls. These scientists need to extract themselves from the traditional academic career track. They have to commit to producing data that in and of itself might not produce sexy little papers, but rather rotund & meaty data sets that anyone can look at with their own unique perspective. These scientists need to be funded and funded well. This can and does happen through visionary philanthropists who understand the conundrum outlined in “2 cents section A”. 

Is there a better way? Absolutely. And I believe fervently that it will enable a radical shift in the 5 step cycle of funding for the average American lab. Imagine what would happen if there was ample preliminary data for all scientists to share. Those scientists could write grants based on their ability to synthesize the most amount of information based on a robust and shared knowledge base.  There is definitely a better way, and as a patient and scientist looking up at Goliath, I know without a shadow of a doubt that my tiny rock can be lodged with great velocity through collaborative scientific efforts.

Ok, back to the topic de jour… May all of us work together harmoniously, tears, no tears, male, female, every race, every creed, every color, every single one of us.

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