Needed: a quantum leap  pg. 7

“Something we can all agree on is to get rid of the waste and inefficiency in the delivery system that results in nothing,” Buerhaus continues. “It’s not as if we have to create a lot of extra dollars (to support research). It’s just that we need to put some discipline into this crazy system that is going to get way out of control as we move forward with these 80 million Baby Boomers” who are entering their retirement years.

William Lawson, M.D., assistant professor of Medicine at Vanderbilt who has advocated nationally for more federal funding for research, notes that the nation spends between $6,000 and $7,000 per year on health care for each of its 300 million citizens, but “less than $100 per person” each year for NIH-sponsored extramural medical research. “That’s a huge gap,” he says.

And while health care reform has been a political “third rail,” electrocuting all who come near, it is equally true that scientists have failed to sell the story of biomedical research in a clear and consistent manner.

Douglas Melton, Ph.D., co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute
Photo by Dana Johnson
“Information is the most important thing in clarifying… misimpressions and/or wrong-headed thinking about things,” says Harvard’s Melton, who is studying how cells might be reprogrammed to cure type 1 diabetes.If you look in the political arena, it’s usually the way words are twisted or there’s seeding purposefully of misinformation that leads people… to the wrong opinion.”

For example, to scientists the word “cloning” means making copies of DNA or cells. But “to my neighbor it means making copies of people, and I don’t know any scientist who wants to do that,” Melton says.

“Scientists make a grave mistake if they think people should just know (intuitively) about this,” he continues. “We are an important part of society, and it’s our obligation to talk to people about not only what we do but why we do it.”

Scientists should avoid making extravagant claims, like promising a cure for cancer in a decade. But there is nothing wrong with spurring the public’s imagination.

“There are two great problems that society faces now, at least as I see the world,” says Melton. “One of them is renewable energy. If I were a young person, I would be fascinated to figure how why chloroplasts in green plants harness energy from the sun so much more efficiently than our best solar panels.

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