August 2013

Imagining a sustainable biomedical enterprise

The opportunities for research in biochemistry and molecular biology and related areas to have impact both on basic knowledge and on human health, energy and other essential areas are tremendous, almost unprecedented. Yet at the same time, the system, broadly defined, for conducting such research is struggling with many challenges. In academia, principal investigators are spending much of their time writing and reviewing grant proposals rather than conducting research. Many faculty members are dependent on the success of such proposals not just to facilitate their research but also for their continued employment. At the same time, universities and other institutions are increasingly dependent on the success of these proposals for their financial viability. Many talented young people who have embarked on careers in biomedical fields find themselves in long periods of training that may be too narrow to prepare them for the range of career opportunities that may be of interest to them. Interactions between academia and the pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies are of increasing interest to both groups, but the frameworks for these interactions are often cumbersome and challenging to set up and may not optimally support the goals of the participants. The federal government is both a major financial supporter of biomedical and biological research and the source of regulations that affect academia and industry. The financial support has not kept up with inflation over the past decade and has been eroded substantially by the enactment of sequestration in the present fiscal year. The regulations, while developed with the best of intentions, may not strike the optimal balance between prevention of undesirable events and time and financial burdens that decrease productivity. Finally, an analysis of trends indicates that many of these problems are getting worse rather than better so that the status quo is not sustainable.
It is easy to imagine a sustainable future in broad strokes. Note that building a sustainable enterprise is not just a matter of gaining increased financial support. The fact that federal support for research has not even kept pace with inflation for a decade has exposed structural defects in the system, but these defects existed independent of the level of support. With that said, we must make the strongest possible case for continued and increased support for research because of the great dividends these investments will pay to society in terms of knowledge; improvements in health, energy and other fields; and both short- and long-term economic development. Our focus on sustainability is most certainly not a matter of conceding that subinflationary budget increases are inevitable or are good policy. Indeed, a clear vision for a sustainable enterprise is likely to be most important as a driver for and in the presence of increased investments.
In a sustainable enterprise, researchers would still compete for funding through peer-review-based processes, because this has proved to be an effective means for allocating resources to the most important ideas. However, in a sustainable environment, the process would be more efficient so that less time was spent writing and reviewing proposals, freeing up time actually to do the research. Young scientists would come out of their training at an earlier stage and well prepared for the exciting range of career paths in biomedical research. Academia, industry and government would interact almost seamlessly to harness basic research advances into applications and products that would benefit the public. Of course, moving toward such a future is much more complicated than simply describing it. These are systemwide issues with many conflicting goals and needs that must be meshed through balance and compromise. It is not the case that many of these issues would vanish if only there were more money available to the system. Sustainability can be achieved only by encouraging the major stakeholders to engage in serious and thoughtful self-examination and then bringing them together to develop policies and programs that will set the system in the right direction.
The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Public Affairs Advisory Committee has been focused on the issue of moving toward a sustainable biomedical research enterprise for the past year. The approach involves three major stages. The first stage has been to develop a white paper that lays out these issues in some detail and raises important questions that must be considered to form a foundation for defining answers. The white paper includes three major sections, each of which is described by a position statement.
Stakeholder interactions and cultures: The ASBMB’s position is that a sustainable biomedical research enterprise requires a new era of meaningful and substantive working relationships among the major stakeholders.
Training and workforce: The ASBMB’s position is that a sustainable biomedical research enterprise requires a highly skilled scientific workforce that is balanced in expertise and numbers across the biomedical research network, from knowledge creation and discovery to products and economic benefit.
Academic research funding: The ASBMB’s position is that stable federal support for basic biomedical research is irreplaceable and essential for a sustainable biomedical research enterprise. The major stakeholders must coordinate efforts to explore new collaborative research funding mechanisms at their interfaces to balance the workforce and repair and restructure the research network. A positive feedback loop is required wherein stable basic research funding creates knowledge that is translated into economic success by industry, thereby feeding back to government to fund additional science.
The purpose of this white paper is to serve as a conversation starter with a broad group of stakeholders. The first important group of stakeholders is the membership of the ASBMB. We are reaching out to other scientific societies, groups and key individuals to get their input as well. The goal is not to continue to polish the white paper but rather to identify and prioritize issues for further analysis and action.
The second stage will occur at the annual meeting in April in San Diego. The PAAC is organizing a panel discussion with representatives and thought leaders from different sectors to continue the process of prioritizing and start to examine possible steps for action. We plan to put some of the most important questions in the white paper to the panel for their reaction and to allow ASBMB members and other attendees at the Experimental Biology 2014 conference to engage with the panel and with each other on these topics.
The third stage will be to follow up to develop action items to address the highest priority issues. This process will involve broader groups of stakeholders across the various sectors. Some of these action items may involve single issues that need to be addressed urgently. However, since the underlying issues are fundamentally systems problems and many potential changes and programs will interact with one another, the most successful path forward likely will involve an integrated suite of proposed changes.
The PAAC, and in particular a special issues subcommittee chaired by Lee Gehrke with considerable input from incoming PAAC chairman Bob Matthews, has spent substantial time and effort producing the white paper. I thank them for their work. Please take the time to read the white paper and send any comments to me at We hope we have captured the most important issues but need your feedback, and now is the time to get issues on the table.
A quote often attributed to Henry Kissinger but actually from Wallace Sayre, a political science professor at Columbia University, states that “academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.” The present situation is a clear violation of Sayre’s Law. The stakes are very high — for academia, for the larger biomedical research enterprise, and for the nation. We must get past wringing our hands and move forward with a thoughtful plan for action.

Photo of Jeremy BergJeremy Berg ( is the associate senior vice-chancellor for science strategy and planning in the health sciences and a professor in the computational and systems biology department at the University of Pittsburgh.

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