Dr. Lawrence Tabak Takes a Shot with UR Biomedical Trainees
News Article By Claire McCarthy, PhD candidate, and Julianne Feola, PhD candidate
As part of his visit to the University of Rochester on April 15th, 2016, Dr. Lawrence Tabak’s only request was that he would get to meet with students and post-docs to have a discussion about the ethical issues surrounding biomedical research. As the Deputy Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), he particularly enjoys hearing the perspective of trainees in the field. He was granted his wish with an hour-long Q&A session prior to his talk, “The Reproducibility of Biomedical Research.” His Q&A session and talk were both well attended by scientists at all stages. According to Dr. Tabak, current issues of biomedical research have been garnering widespread interest among the scientific community as well as the general population.
As a former faculty member at the University of Rochester, Dr. Tabak was particularly enthusiastic about coming here to speak. After earning a D.D.S. from Columbia University and a Ph.D. in Oral Biology from the University of Buffalo, he joined the scientific community at Rochester and eventually held the position of Senior Associate Dean for Research. In 2000, Dr. Tabak moved to the NIH to serve as the Director of the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) and has held the position of Deputy Director since 2010. In this role, he provides support to Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the NIH, and is heavily involved in the planning and coordination of much of the agency’s activities. He is also the Head of the Ethics Advisory Committee. When describing his day-to-day job, he mentioned that he enjoys having the ability to “enable other people to do great science”. He discussed some of the interesting challenges that he can face as the Deputy Director. In particular, he has found that the focus of his work is often dictated by events that nobody has control over, such as the spread of the Ebola virus and, most recently, the Zika virus. As one of the most prominent government agencies devoted to healthcare research, he and his colleagues must be prepared to address these issues quickly and efficiently. He stressed how important it is for trainees to voice their opinions to help catalyze policy change. “It’s powerful how each and every one of you can influence your representatives” he said. “You don’t realize how powerful you are as constituents”.
In response to a question about his initial interest in the ethics of biomedical research, Dr. Tabak responded with “You know that ethics course that you all have to take at the beginning of graduate school? It’s my fault. I started it before the NIH required it”. The 1990-1991 academic year was the first year that the ethics course was offered to students at the University of Rochester, and Dr. Tabak was behind its creation and implementation. His interest in beginning the course stemmed from his belief that there was a need to have consistency in ethics education among trainees. Today, Dr. Tabak remains heavily interested in biomedical research ethics, as he believes that problems continue to exist that must be addressed. Several of these issues are gaining widespread attention, as the general population is becoming increasingly aware of them through articles published in popular news outlets. This has sparked numerous conversations among politicians and policy makers that are aimed at addressing these problems.
Ongoing conversations are part of Dr. Tabak’s motivation for addressing the issues surrounding the poor reproducibility of biomedical research. In his talk, he presented several quotes from historical figures, including Sir Isaac Newton and William Whewell that highlighted the notion that “science is inherently ‘self-correcting’”. In other words, scientific findings will continue to adapt and change as new discoveries and observations are made, and we should constantly be seeking to improve and verify them. Reproducibility has become more difficult in today’s “publish or perish” environment, however, as researchers are competing to have work published in the most prominent journals. All components of the current “biomedical research ecosystem”- investigators, journals and funding sources- are plagued by this problem.
To address the potential causes of the issues surrounding reproducibility, Dr. Tabak discussed training and ethical challenges for scientific research. In the Q & A session, he discussed the growth of interdisciplinary projects, which require more people and communication between collaborators. However, problems often arise since many scientists are afraid to ask questions of their peers. Moreover, people with different nationalities often have different social norms that may lead to misunderstandings if members of the team are not aware of cultural beliefs. When asked about the biggest ethical challenges in research, Dr. Tabak talked to the trainees about a continuum of unethical behavior and ignorance due to poor training. He thinks that many problems in research, including inappropriate statistical analyses and poor experimental design, are often unintentional errors made by researchers who were not given the fundamental tools for these actions through their training. He gave an example of a scientist without a background in statistics that uses the wrong statistical comparison to show an issue of poor training. On the other hand, a person that tries multiple statistical tests until s/he finds the one that shows a significant result – P-hacking –, is an issue of unethical behavior. Additionally, during Dr. Tabak’s lecture, he reminded the audience of the importance of cell line authentication and negative data, asking “As you look in your cell dish, do you know who your cell really is?” and “When did a well-designed experiment proving the null hypothesis become evil?” Dr. Tabak made faculty and trainees at the University of Rochester consider current issues in scientific research.
Dr. Tabak also shared some of the ways that the National Institutes of Health (NIH), with the help of research institutions, are trying to solve the problems of research integrity. The NIH plans to enhance reproducibility through improved training programs in experimental design and analysis, adoption of an enhanced systematic grant review process, and encouragement of data sharing, such as through Pubmed Commons and pre-publication servers like bioRxiv that allow crowd-sourcing. Yet, Dr. Tabak said that efforts by the NIH alone are not sufficient to address scientific reproducibility and challenges. Scientists have a role in raising community awareness and stimulating discussions among organizations. According to Dr. Tabak, “we need to talk about this stuff,” and increase transparency related to research ethics.
In addition to improving the scientific training for graduate students and post-doctoral fellows, Dr. Tabak talked about the need for enhancing the workforce planning of trainees. According to Dr. Tabak, although almost all NIH trainees are employed, some are not doing a job that they thought they would and “many are underutilizing their full potential.” Moreover, he said there is a need for PhDs in policy, economics, writing, and teaching. Dr. Tabak stated, “Becoming a professor is great, but there are a lot of other good careers.” He discussed the exploration of non-academic careers. He gave an example of using an internship or externship in science policy, such as the AAAS Fellowship, President Management Intern Program, or State Legislature Internship, to see “(A) Do you really like it? and (B) Does it allow you to gain a foothold. The importance of career preparation for multiple paths has led the NIH and Dr. Tabak to support Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) programs. These programs, one of which is at the University of Rochester, aim to improve career outcomes for trainees in biomedical science.
Along with career exploration, Dr. Tabak’s Q & A session touched on extra-curricular activities. The last question of the session was, “Did you make that shot?,” in reference to a slide showing Dr. Tabak taking a basketball free-throw. Dr. Tabak then told us the story behind the picture. This year, it was the NIDCR’s turn to organize an event to raise money for the Combined Federal Campaign (described as a Federal-version of the United Way). They decided to do a foul shooting contest and, as the former Director of the Institute, Dr. Tabak, took part in shooting, and more importantly, scoring the winning shot. According to him, “Two people here (who knew him when he worked at the University of Rochester) can corroborate my basketball skills…I do have game, or at least I used to.”