August 2010

Encouraging Innovative and Translational Research


FASEB attempts to define “innovation” and “translation” in relation to research and to explore ways scientists can incorporate them in their research.


Two commonly heard buzzwords associated with research endeavors today are “innovation” and “translation.” Although most people agree that conducting innovative and translational science is essential, few are clear on how to incorporate these concepts into their research. Thus, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology sought to define “innovation” and “translation” in relation to research and to explore ways to incorporate them.


What does it mean to be innovative? How is innovation evaluated? Are some mechanisms of research support more successful than others? These were some of the questions addressed at FASEB’s annual Science Policy Committee meeting this past June. The meeting brought together scientific leaders to discuss how institutions encourage and evaluate innovation. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute favors a “people over projects” approach, giving their investigators the freedom to pursue their own research interests and encouraging them to focus on high risk, high reward projects. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is mission-focused, funding projects strictly aligned with agency goals. The National Institutes of Health’s Transformative R01 program provides grants to investigators who have demonstrated potential as “explorers,” whereas the NIH New Innovator Award focuses on impact and innovation rather than preliminary results. The Linkages Program at the Harvard Clinical and Translational Science Center has experimented with “collective intelligence” models through online collaborations to generate innovative answers to tough research questions.

But, do these institutions promote innovation? The Science and Technology in America’s Reinvestment – Measuring the Effect of Research on Innovation, Competitiveness and Science (STAR METRICS) initiative hopes to determine that. The program is a “federal and university partnership that is developing an empirical framework to measure the outcomes of science investments and demonstrate the benefits of scientific investments to the public.”


"Like innovation, translation means different things to different people."

Following the SPC meeting, members of FASEB’s translational research steering committee convened to produce some of their own innovative ideas for promoting translational research. Like innovation, translation means different things to different people. It is often described as the bidirectional process in which information acquired through basic research is used to develop new medical treatments (T1) and the implementation of those medical treatments into clinical practice (T2). Increased emphasis on translational research stems from concerns that discoveries in basic science are not converted readily into medical breakthroughs. Although a number of initiatives have been developed to address this concern, such as NIH’s Clinical and Translational Science Award program and the Cures Acceleration Network, few have focused specifically on the importance of engaging basic scientists.

FASEB’s “Forum on the Critical Role of Basic Scientists in the Translational Research Enterprise” aims to encourage and facilitate the participation of basic scientists in translational research, particularly at the T1 stage, where their knowledge of basic biological processes is often important to understanding and treating human disease. However, moving discoveries from bench to bedside is challenging. For example, just as clinical researchers may not understand fundamental mechanisms of the diseases they study, basic scientists aren’t always aware of how their work applies to clinical problems. In addition, regulatory complexities, particularly navigating human subjects’ protection processes, could deter basic scientists from entering into translational research. There are also obstacles at the institutional level. In addition to the organizational and structural issues that make collaboration a challenge, many basic scientists are concerned that it will be harder to publish translational research, that they will not have the support of their departments and that their work will not be rewarded with tenure and promotion.
FASEB aims to explore these issues from basic scientists’ perspectives in hopes of elevating their excitement and involvement. The steering committee currently is organizing a symposium to explore opportunities for basic scientists in translational research, the obstacles to their participation and how to overcome them.

Anne M. Deschamps ( is a science policy fellow in the Office of Public Affairs at FASEB.

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