Why blog? Why this blog?

The author’s background and goals, and the scope and direction of BiomedWatch

BiomedWatch will focus primarily on 21st-century biomedical research in the US, now and in the future. Each blog on this site is an experimental attempt to say something interesting, and perhaps even useful, about how biomedical research is organized, performed, supported, and sustained. BiomedWatch is thus a risky adventure, which may fail. Let me begin with who I am and what I hope this blog may be.

In the early 1960s, I learned that I had no talent for writing fiction. Sorely disappointed, I applied instead to medical school, where I soon became intrigued by biomedical questions and the powerful tools science was devising to answer them (1). By the 1970s, as an academic doctor I shifted focus from the clinic to the lab. For 25 years, I studied G-proteins and inherited G-protein diseases, before switching briefly to chemotaxis of white blood cells (2). After spending most of my research career at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), I retired and closed the lab in 2008.

In retirement I wrote two books that led to BiomedWatch: a memoir (1) and an historical account of three biomedical discoveries (3). Both books tell stories of laboratory investigators at UCSF, with special attention to their different research strategies and unique talents, as well as their interactions with the host institution and with key individuals who contributed to their success—usually positively but sometimes quite negatively (1, 3). While the books concentrated on a few researchers in a single institution, I began to recognize powerful and varied influences—occasionally intended, more often not—that institutions exert on investigators’ behavior and the scope and direction of their research.

Comparing young scientists in the 1970s to the same age group in the early 21st century, I also began to see dramatic differences in their behaviors, attitudes, and goals. The earlier generation was more adventurous, confident, independent, and bold about tackling big questions. They were also less deferential to their elders and less anxious about grant applications, publishing in prestigious journals, academic promotions, competitors, buying a house, or raising children. Today’s young scientists are smarter and better trained, but don’t appear to have nearly as much fun.

Thoughts like these tempted me to write a third book with a broader focus, aimed at understanding the organization, funding, opportunities, and problems of 21st-century biomedical research in the US. Such a book would ask how this scientific behemoth achieved its present vast size and complexity, and why—despite magnificent opportunities and promise—it now seems headed toward disaster. The challenge appealed mightily, but also overwhelmed. I felt like Falstaff confronting Mistress Quickly: I didn’t quite know “where to have her.” I suspect no one else knows, either.

Faced with unsettling disparity between nature’s daunting complexity and their own limited skills and tools, scientists break a grand problem into smaller units, grapple separately with each, and expect the separate answers to form patterns and reveal clues to the larger mystery. By analogy, BiomedWatch will identify questions and issues, review what thoughtful people say about them, and try to come up with causal explanations and practical proposals for action. Whereas a book implies comprehensive treatment of a big subject, blogs can hazard explanations and proposals of narrower scope, recognizing that many will be tentative or even wrong. To succeed, a blog need not always be “right,” if it triggers insightful corrections and suggestions from others.

In conversations with my colleagues, I have recently begun comparing the dangerous course of US biomedical science today to the Titanic’s heedless rush through an iceberg-laden sea a century ago, and calling for urgent course changes to avoid the icebergs. The biggest iceberg: the drastic decrease in biomedical research support by the US government during the past decade. Other icebergs, nearly as scary, reflect cumulative effects of policies and practices over the past half-century. For all of these, I believe, every stakeholder—scientists, institutions, the NIH, Congress, and the voting public—shares major responsibility.

Early blogs on BiomedWatch will touch on some or all of these topics:

  • Why the biomedical research community persistently refuses to pay attention to the icebergs that surround us.
  • Positive feedback loops that exacerbate dangerous trends in biomedical training, soft-money faculty salaries, and institutional expansionism.
  • Training young scientists vs. using them as a cheap source of labor in the lab.
  •  Relative efficiencies of top-down vs. bottom-up strategies for funding and reviewing of research projects.
  • Peer review at the NIH and elsewhere.
  • Soft-money salaries for faculty researchers vs. shifting a substantial fraction of institutional support from bricks and mortar to personnel.
  • Publishing biomedical research results in prestigious journals.

NOTES

1. HR Bourne, Ambition and Delight, ExLibris (2009). Read this book for an account of the diverse gamut of relations between mentors and trainees, and how the unique personalities of individual scientists shape their science. Their discoveries are driven by cooperation, competitive ambition, and the visceral delight of solving nature’s puzzles.

2. My curriculum vitae and bibliography here.

3. HR Bourne, Paths to Innovation: Discovering Recombinant DNA, Oncogenes, and Prions, in One Medical School, Over One Decade, University of California Medical Humanities Consortium, distributed by UC Press (2011). The book describes how four young researchers made those discoveries and how UCSF contributed to the local environment that allowed those discoveries to happen. Hint: UCSF’s main contribution was to provide physical resources, but otherwise to leave the researchers pretty much alone.