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Forum: Focus Research Funding on Scientists Not Science

Elazer Edelman (A. Kotok)

Elazer Edelman (A. Kotok)

Elazer Edelman, a health sciences and technology professor at MIT called for a different funding formula during tight economic times that finances scientists rather than big scientific initiatives. Edelman made his remarks at a forum today on biomedical innovation in Washington, D.C. put on by American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

He also called for universities to stop treating their research professors “like tenant farmers,” that in effect exchange research funding generated by the faculty member for office and lab space. The forum was sponsored by the AAAS publication Science Translational Medicine, where Edelman serves as chief scientific advisor.

Edelman, who is also a practicing cardiologist and Harvard medical school faculty member, responded to an audience question that “In time of plenty, it’s fine to fund projects, but in times when resources are sparse, we ought to fund people.” He calls the current approach of U.S. federal agencies to fund science rather than scientists, “a critical error.”

A new approach Edelman recommends is to identify investigators with career potential rather than current “kings of science.” He said the “era of giving one or two people hundreds of millions of dollars to throw around is gone.” Instead, says Edelman, government and universities should be supporting new researchers by “celebrating (a) their diversity, (b) their accomplishments, and (c) their potential.”

Edleman pointed out he would rather “take funds and give it to people who we admit may not have accomplished anything, rather than try to give large sums of money to people, who may have accomplished something in the past and have a safe idea for the future.” He called this current practice by NIH of giving large grants to universities, “extremely wasteful.” He noted that “The same $10 million goes a lot farther given to 10 people than it does to one person.”

Another key problem, said Edelman is for universities to keep scientists doing science. “We are already suffering from tremendous brain drain in our universities,” said Edelman, that affects a range of activities at campuses, including the number of patents awarded to the institutions. He said there’s now a “staggering” number of Howard Hughes Medical Institute scholars — mid-level scientists recognized by HHMI for their achievements — that are leaving universities for industry so they can put their children through college.

To fix this problem, said Edelman, universities have to change the way they support research. “You can’t allow research faculty to be tenant farmers,” remarked Edelman. He said the attitude of most universities is, “We will give you this office as long as you bring in enough overhead to turn on the lights in the entire building. And when you don’t, that’s fine, but now you’re going to teach 3-4 courses or all of your money is soft money.”

Edelman’s prepared remarks covered what he called the “big bang” in biomedical innovation, where more disciplines are now involved in the practice and delivery of medicine. These different disciplines, such as engineering and medical science, continue to move further apart, making bridging those disciplines more difficult, but also more imperative to foster biomedical innovation.

Edelman used as an example his own work in developing an endovascular stent, a metal mesh tube to treat aneurysms and related vascular conditions. Early experience with the stent uncovered problems with blood clotting and restenosis, or narrowing of blood vessels. Fixing those problems required getting involved in a range of different fields, such as metallurgy and computational biology. In the end, the development team was able to reduce the error rate of these stents to six percent, noted Edelman, even below that of bypass surgery.

The approach recommended by Edelman follows the Latin dictum, Primum sciere or “Above all seek to understand.” That understanding, he noted, requires bringing in various disciplines. Edelman suggested to accommodate knowledge from different disciplines, it may be more productive to encourage multi-disciplinary thinking by researchers rather than bringing in individual experts from different fields.

In response to a question from Science Business about commercializing research, Edelman said “the best way to allow technology to get into the clinic is to get industry involved.” Yet he had “mixed feelings” about university faculty starting up companies based on their research. Edelman said the laws that allow faculty to commercialize research funded by NIH, “is at once enabling, and the same time, problematic.” He feels if your’re starting a company based on research funded by NIH, then NIH should get a cut of the proceeds.

Although he started companies himself, Edelman noted he had “yet to start a company that was extraordinarily successful, but that day will come.”

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