The disconnect of basic research

Via Ezra Klein, I came across this excellent but dated Newsweek article cleverly titled “We Fought Cancer…And Cancer Won.” It nicely discusses, among other things, the disconnect between basic research and medical advances, something I touched on recently.  I strongly recommend the entire article.  Here’s the money quote:

“It made for a lot of elegant science and important research papers. But it “all seemed to have little or no impact on the methods used by clinicians to diagnose and treat cancers,” wrote Varmus. Basic-science studies of the mechanisms leading to cancer and efforts to control cancer, he observed, “often seemed to inhabit separate worlds.” Indeed, it is possible (and common) for cancer researchers to achieve extraordinary acclaim and success, measured by grants, awards, professorships and papers in leading journals, without ever helping a single patient gain a single extra day of life. There is no pressure within science to make that happen.” [emphasis added–PK]

I’m sure somebody will really appreciate this quote! On top of this issue, the author also briefly but effectively discusses prioritizing prevention rather than cure, connecting bench scientists with medical decision-making, funding riskier research, and ensuring that the benefits of science are equally distributed across all groups.  I could probably write at least 5 more posts on this one article, but I’ll (probably!) spare you.

On an unrelated note, also check out this Times piece on the increasing presence of university presidents on corporate boards.  There are probably upsides and downsides to the practice, which the article does discuss.  John Gillespie’s stance is quite hilarious:

Academics may be trained to ask tough questions in their own fields, but when confronted with tricky business issues far above their level of expertise they “often become as meek as church mice,” he says.


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