"Biomedical Research has changed dramatically over the past 25 years," said Marvin Cassman, director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, at a meeting of biomedical funders hosted last week at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in Bethesda, Maryland. "The question is: Has biology education changed?"
Over 100 individuals representing over 70 public and private grant-makers, from the American Cancer Society to the National Institutes of Health to the Whitaker Foundation, gathered on Valentines day for 3 days' worth of discussions on what their organizations can do to set the course for training tomorrow's biomedical researchers.
"More and more we're seeing major developments in science coming from interdisciplinary teamwork," said HHMI president Tom Cech, who won the 1989 Nobel Prize for his work on the enzymatic activity of RNA. Elke Jordan, deputy director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, spoke of the shortage of and demand for biologists with the computer skills to handle large volumes of biological data.
"In the 1980s, you could get a Ph.D. with practically only one course," said Nick Cozzarelli, a molecular biologist at the University of California, Berkeley. "The idea was to get students barefoot and in the lab pipetting as soon as possible." The problem, he said, is this system produces students with very little knowledge outside their area of specialization.
"We are very good at specializing people," agreed geneticist David Botstein, chair of the Stanford University School of Medicine. "But people also need to have sockets. They need to be able to speak the language [of other disciplines] well enough to explain the problem" to collaborators.
Tomorrow's researchers will "need lots of math, basic science, and an understanding of what the clinical issues are," Botstein said. But these skills needn't necessarily be found all in one cranium, he added. "Besides teaching students good science, the best thing we can do for our students is to learn to work together."
Future Plans of Funders
Three funding organizations announced training programs in the pipeline:
"The real art of collaboration is to share credit," Botstein added. While collaborations may be the answer to tomorrow's converging research agenda, collaborations tend to produce paragraph-long author lists in journals. What does this mean for young investigators whose career advancement is so reliant on the number of papers with their name topping the author list rather than buried in the middle? "It's a substantial problem," Botstein recognized. Changing academic reward systems and encouraging senior investigators to give young investigators top billing is no easy task.
Will biomedical funders do anything differently as a result of the discussions?
Some funders mentioned new programs for young investigators already in the pipeline (see sidebar). Donella Wilson of the American Cancer Society said ACS may modify some of the criteria to encourage interdisciplinary projects. Most said they would take the recommendations back to their advisory boards.
But Tom Cech warned against uniformity: "I would be the last to say we should all be doing the same thing and pooling our money." Said one grants officer: "We as funders may want to try different approaches and become more interdisciplinary ourselves."