Uncle Sam: Scientist pg. 2
“For the moment, we still have the front rank in the world in biomedical science,” says Bishop, who shared the 1989 Nobel Prize in medicine with Harold Varmus, M.D., for their discovery of oncogenes.
In addition, Americans have shown unique insight by forging alliances between academicians and businesspeople, translating fundamental research findings into products that are useful at the bedside and in the marketplace. Plus, the United States has fostered an enclave of venture capitalists who helped create a thriving trade in biotechnology.
“No other country has had a community of investors that even vaguely resembles the biotech venture capitalists in the U.S.,” Bishop says. “We’ve dominated the scene.”
Americans tend to be a practical people, and their scientific history reflects that. Prior to the 19th century, American science was famously empirical, unlike the science going on in most of Europe, which was largely based on theory and experimentation.
People in the United States applied their ingenuity to the high-tech endeavors of the day, such as the steel industry, in building bridges, roads and canals, in solving health problems caused by contaminated water systems. Yet while the physical and engineering sciences were booming, Americans lagged behind their European colleagues in the medical sciences, such as biology and physiology. Medical schools served as certificate factories, requiring only four months of study or less, and most were unaffiliated with universities or hospitals.
In the early 20th century, Abraham Flexner, Ph.D., changed that scenario. Charged by the Rockefeller Foundation to evaluate all the medical school programs in the country, in 1910 he issued the “Flexner Report,” demanding that medical education require a rigorous course of study in the basic sciences and classical languages.
In response, the Rockefeller and other philanthropic foundations donated $154 million to improve the quality of American medical education. These unprecedented dollars from the private sector spurred states to begin channeling money into universities, launching an era of governmental, institutional and foundational support for biomedical science that remains in effect today.
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