Thursday, June 29, 2017

By Ryan Meyer, CSPO at ASU, reporting from the Exemplar Panels

Dave:” do we have the time to change our institutions to respond to these new challenges?”

Richard: “We have no alternative but to have the time. Of course we have to do it.”

Neal: “We’re out of time already. How far will we let it go before we get serious about changing these structures?”

Susan: “All these systems are artificial. We created them. Let’s change them.”

Those final comments capped a provocative and wide-ranging session this morning. Following ASU President Crow’s opening statement: “we’ve got to get past this notion that somehow we know what we are doing!” this panel struggled with perverse incentives, entrenched institutions, and the complexity of urgent problems such as health care and energy.

The discussion left us with lots to think about. Do we need different categories for ‘problem solvers’ and ‘fundamental knowledge seekers?” How do we create feedback systems for science and technology that eliminate perverse incentives? How do we understand social needs?

Medical research and health care were a prominent theme, offering an example of an incredibly difficult problem, with many complicated values and implications for research.

Neal spoke about the challenge of providing virtually free health care to a healthy population. How should research respond to that challenge?

Susan worried about the drive to treat the ‘worried well’ at the expense of the ‘truly ill.’ Is this the wrong direction for science? What does the right direction look like?

Richard advocated for greater agility in the funding institutions struggling to respond to these issues, and offered an interesting example of perverse incentives: Science celebrates inefficiency! We tout the amount of money we spend on a problem. But in the private sector, if you boast that you spent $100m developing something, when another group spent only $10m, you’re basically saying did the job ten times more poorly.

I’ll provide some additional summaries from the exemplar’s comments below. Please chime in with comments, corrections and additions!

Richard Jefferson, Chief Executive Officer, Cambia, Canberra, Australia

Coming to us live at 2AM from Canberra! Having spent the last six months in Australia, I have a special kind of empathy for Richard’s situation. Richard’s video address (downloadable link to full half-hour version here) is notable for the presence of a famous cartoon, framed on his desk just behind him.

Science is driven by the granting community and motivations of scientists, but only very modestly by social need. We expect a miracle to bridge this gap for us.

The concept of CAMBIA’s work is simply: if someone is interested in, say, water purification technology, they ought to know what’s going on in that realm! What sort of innovation is occurring? What investments have been made? Who are the players? What are the available tools?

By assembling this information, they can create maps that guide people in this space. The goal is to make these maps indispensable to decision makers. You can’t operate effectively without knowing what’s going on in a broad range of innovation activities.

The work is motivated by a fundamental problem: there are too many perverse incentives at play in the public sector, and they don’t have the advantage of a powerful mechanism like the market to provide feedback.

Neal Woodbury, Professor, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, ASU

Neal came into this collaboration with CSPO with a fairly classical training in science, basically thinking this was an interesting hook for getting a grant. It seemed like something grad students oughta know something about. But he discovered a whole world that he hadn’t been thinking about.

He sees its importance operating on two levels:

  • The higher level of scientific culture. How do we work toward broad scale change?
  • Closer to home. Once you cross the bridge that President Crow has encouraged us to cross, you suddenly commit yourself to understanding a lot more than just the technology associated with what you’re doing. I should now be committed to designing my science with all of those inputs in mind. it’s a huge challenge. we’re not trained to do that.

Another challenge is trying to embrace this approach as an institution. At biodesign they feel they’re reaching a level of maturity in that respect. The new Center for Sustainable Health is an example of this maturity. NO LABS! It will function as a broad integrator.

But the big science policy question: how do you get money for these kinds of things? Agencies are not set up for it. As an institution they need to learn how to get funding, but funders also need to learn how to fund them. How do we do this mutual learning?

Susan Fitzpatrick, Vice President, James S. McDonnell Foundation

Susan has been at the Foundation for 17 years, after many years of searching for the right place. She has come to understand that social venture capital is acquisition of new knowledge and its application. These are not two separate activities. The acquisition of new knowledge can only happen in the context of its potential impact.

Susan took up President Crow’s statement that advancing knowledge is outpacing our ability to deal with it. Is this always true? In the biomedical field it seems like we suffer from an utter lack of knowledge about the stuff that really matters. We have all kinds of knowledge about animal models, but what do we know about humans? Not enough. We need to make sure science is heading in the right direction.

What did you think about this session?

Some CSPO writings on these ideas (feel free to chime in with more, from CSPO and elsewhere!):

Sarewitz and colleagues: A Societal Outcomes Map for Health Research Policy

Jason Robert on model organisms, and the consequences of relying on them in medical science.

Soapbox posts on health, health research, and healthcare.

check ‘em out!

One Response so far.

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by yanuar nugroho, merlyna lim. merlyna lim said: 1st exemplar session: we created them. let's change them. http://bit.ly/ddWGso #cspocon [...]