Canary in the research lab  pg. 6

One reason basic biomedical research is such a hard sell is that innovations may take many years to come to fruition.

They are characterized by years and years of painstakingly derived results, before progress begins to accelerate, eventually leading to leaps in knowledge, and finally into live-saving treatments and cures. Plus, they are often difficult to instantly visualize. It’s much easier to spot innovative technology in cars, computers, and cell phones.

For example, the life scientists deliberately stayed in the background while the physical scientists initially—and successfully -- pitched the National Nanotechnology Initiative to Congress as a potential boon to the microelectronics industry, “because,” says Cyrus Mody, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Rice University who teaches about the history of innovation and technology, “that’s an industry where talk about competitiveness is always on the table.”

The Human Genome Project similarly required a hard sell by scientists and a multi-billion dollar leap of faith by the government. Many politicians and academicians had doubts about the rationale for such a costly venture. Originally proposed as a way to study mutations caused by nuclear exposures, then cancer, and later genetic diseases, the Human Genome Project called upon a swarm of researchers from various disciplines to create a genetic map of the human chromosomes, identifying all the 20,000 to 25,000 genes in human DNA.

The project, completed in 2003, didn’t give scientists any answers to cancer or diabetes or birth defects—but it did offer them high-resolution navigation tools and clues for where they should begin looking.

Such a sell would be more difficult today, scientists admit, given the current state of the economy and the equally urgent challenges facing the nation’s health care delivery system. “In the public’s mind, they see that we’re 40th in health or wherever we are nationally,” Brown says. “I think the public conflates the mission of the NIH with other social issues and other health outcome issues that we need to fix as well.

“We need to be very specific about the positive outcomes of NIH dollars because they’re so far downstream with health outcomes and they may not understand that there are many steps in between.”

“Honestly, if we don’t talk about what we’re doing, and if we don’t sell what we’re doing and point out the benefits that accrue from it, we have nobody to blame but ourselves,” adds Ellen Wright Clayton, M.D., J.D., who directs the Vanderbilt Center for Biomedical Ethics and Society.

“We exist at the sufferance of the people, and so we’re accountable to them and we just have to tell the story,” Clayton says. “It’s a great story. But that’s what we have to tell them.”

Lisa A. DuBois and Nicole Garbarini contributed to this story

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