Needed: a quantum leap  pg. 5

Foundations also can provide “support for controversial or unpopular topics where government is reluctant to tread, and nurturing of ideas early in their inception prior to broader acceptance,” said Susan Fitzpatrick, Ph.D., vice president of the St. Louis-based James S. McDonnell Foundation.

“Having a large number of funding organizations with diverse decision-makers helps ensure flourishing of alternative models and approaches that may depart from the common wisdom or challenge the status quo,” Fitzpatrick said in remarks prepared for a forum on science and technology policy hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science last May.

“Driving cures requires investing in high-risk science,” adds Brian Fiske, Ph.D., an associate director of research programs at the Michael J. Fox Foundation, which committed more than $30 million in new Parkinson’s disease research in 2008. “It’s all about testing hypotheses that may very well fail, and betting on technologies that may fall apart or become obsolete in a few years. But if we don’t take that risk, others won’t.”

The foundation is currently funding clinical trials of several novel therapeutic approaches to Parkinson’s disease that otherwise would likely not yet have advanced to testing in patients.

“When the foundation was launched in 2000, we didn’t necessarily anticipate that we would have to go this far before someone else would take the lead,” Fiske says. “But we can’t stand by as potentially promising drugs sit on the shelf and never go to definitive clinical trials, and no one ever knows if they will work or not.”

Private efforts, however, do not come close to matching the $28-billion-a-year NIH “engine” that drives the nation’s biomedical discovery enterprise. Notes Conn: “I think the entire system would implode if you didn’t have that strong national investment.”

Invest in education

Nurturing the spirit of discovery ultimately must begin with the next generation.

That’s why an increasing number of scientists and universities around the country are partnering with public schools to bring more of the joy and excitement of discovery into the classroom. VUMC, for example, has provided summer science workshops for teachers for more than a decade.

“These science teachers out there are highly motivated. They just need… access to mentoring from us,” Balser says. “And so creating a really direct linkage between the science teachers in this community and university faculty so that we’re all part of a community, and we’re all engaged in this together—that’s really where the solution lies.”

Individual faculty members and students from Vanderbilt also are investing their time and talents to help capture the imagination and talent of public school students.

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