Big Science is here to stay – pooling knowledge to advance science

Kevin McCormack is blogging this week from the Partnering for Cures meeting in New York.

When you think of scientific research the traditional model is individual researchers or teams of researchers working on their own projects. But Big Science turns that model on its head, getting those individuals to work together in a collective program aimed at achieving a bigger goal. A good example is the Human Genome Project that took on mapping the entire genome. Big Science is not only important, but it’s also alive and well and still very much needed. That was the view of a panel of scientific and research stars gathered at the Partnering for Cures conference in New York City.

Marc Tessier-Lavigne, President of The Rockefeller University, said “Big Science is here to stay” because sometimes big advances can only come from a large team effort. Once those advances are made it will then be the individual teams and researchers who take that knowledge and push it even further forward. But without Big Science, big ideas cannot advance.

Francis Collins, the Director of the National Institutes of Health (and the driving force behind the Human Genome Project) was the most well-known name on the panel and not surprisingly he was very much in favor of Big Science. He said it’s putting aside the “business as usual” model of individual researchers working on a hypothesis-directed project, in favor of something bigger, grander that is goal-directed.

He pointed to a joint program that the NIH is engaged in with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and stem cells play a key role in it:

“We are working on ways to identify if a small molecule is safe when giving it for the first time to a patient. The development of iPS, induced pluripotent stem cells, has changed our ability to do that and allows us to break away from the old testing on animal model. You might imagine being able to test toxicology on human cells, in a way that is high throughput, highly technically advanced and low cost, bringing together the technical experts and stem cell experts and toxicology experts. So we have put together a team of people who would not normally be in the same room, to see if this idea can be achieved. It’s about timeliness, having the technology ready for this kind of work and the expertise available to do it. We could ultimately do the screening much faster and cheaper and do the development of new drugs in a much better way than in the past.”

Arati Prabhakar, the Director of DARPA, and Collins partner in the venture, echoed his thoughts:

“If we can achieve the goals of this program think about the impact we could have. It’s not just about one disease but covers a wide spectrum of diseases. That’s an example of starting with a big question, looking for the elements of the solution and then setting goals. “

She said not all the projects will succeed, but those that do succeed in “hitting it out of the park” will have an enormous global impact.

The goal of the conference is to explore the different partnerships that are needed to help develop new treatments, new therapies, even new approaches to innovation and to find ways to make it easier to create those partnerships.

Collins talked about the problems that the decrease in federal funding for scientific research is causing, particularly for young scientists, and how these new partnerships and collaborations are essential if we are to keep science moving forward at a rapid pace.

Kevin McCormack

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