Lunch with NIH Director Dr. Collins
News Article by Sarah Latchney, PhD, and Solomon Abiola, PhD graduate student and MS
As part of his visit during UR’s Meliora Weekend, NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins requested to meet with students and post docs for lunch. Seventy-seven trainees applied and fifteen were selected. Attendees Dr. Sarah Latchney and Solomon Abiola share their insights.
Science, policy, religion, and diversity: How effective communication can foster mutual understanding and respect
How can scientists and non-scientists best discuss opposing views on pressing health issues? How can we bridge the communication gap between scientists and politicians? Are science and Christianity antagonistic towards each other? What are the unresolved issues in addressing diversity in biomedical research? I had the pleasure to discuss these thought provoking questions over lunch with NIH director Dr. Francis Collins as part of his visit to the University of Rochester during Meliora Weekend. Here I share Dr. Collins’ thoughts and my insights on these topics.
Whether you identify yourself as a scientist or not, we cannot deny that there are an increasing number of global issues that revolve around science. These include topics such as choices of energy resources, changes in climate activity, bioterrorism and biosecurity, pandemics, our response to and recovery from natural disasters, and ethical concerns related to the rapidly emerging field of precision medicine to name a few. These societal issues require mutual cooperation and understanding between scientists and non-scientists (i.e., the public and policy makers). Yet, there is a general distrust and misunderstanding between the world scientists live in – a world that is driven by a quest for knowledge and discovery – and the world policy makers live in – a world that is driven by timely and value-based decisions.
To bridge the gap between scientists and non-scientists require effective communication between the two groups. How can we, as research scientists, best facilitate discussion of global issues with non-scientists? How can scientists quell the anxiety and misconceptions the general public may have about the work in which we pour our lifeblood into? Dr. Collins points out that it starts with a frank discussion from scientists on why our work is important and how to convey the urgency and importance of our scientific discoveries to non-scientists. We also need to understand the ramifications of our discoveries and why the public may be apprehensive about these ramifications. He believes it is critical for the scientific community to understand the perspective of non-scientists, to be sensitive to their perceptions, and to find a way to connect with them.
Let’s examine how this can be applied to the relationship scientists have with politicians and their policy making decisions. It does not help that the majority of Congress does not have a background in science. Moreover, members of Congress are not as interested in science for the sake of science as they are in what science can do for society. Politicians are influenced by public opinions that are often subjective. They do not communicate in technical terms. Instead, they rely on sound bites and the media to deliver their message. They live in a black and white world where they provide simple binary answers to global problems. They cast a simple yes or no vote on a bill, a simple yes or no on a decision, and run for elections that are largely driven by money. In contrast, scientists are influenced by facts revealed through objective and systematic scientific methods. Much of our work as scientists is driven by a passion to understand why or how a phenomenon happens, regardless of public opinion or if it has a direct application for human health. We do not live in a black and white world with simple yes and no answers to public health issues. We communicate in domain-specific vocabulary and concepts that are incomprehensible to non-scientists. We are rewarded for communicating our results to other scientists through peer-reviewed publications and scientific meetings, but not necessarily for communicating to policy makers, the media, and the general public. In fact, some scientists are distrustful of the media and wary of how their results and interpretations may be used or misused.
Adding to this dilemma is that not every politician is concerned with science and not every scientist is concerned with policy. Despite our differences, politicians rely on the scientific community to provide answers to pressing societal issues in order to make policy decisions. Respectively, scientists rely on politicians to cast votes on decisions that are based on sound scientific evidence and to extend their research from the laboratory bench into the realm of realistic outcomes that are relevant to current global issues. Unfortunately, the scientific community is not skilled at providing, or is even willing to provide simple and straightforward answers that politicians need. This is where the issue of scientific communication becomes paramount. For scientists, Dr. Collins believes that improved communication starts with increased effort from scientists to engage with policy makers. Engagement involves an understanding and respect of where policy makers come from, an understanding of their motives behind their decisions, and increased concern for how our scientific discoveries impacts their policy decision making. It is our responsibility to communicate science in a way that policy makers can take action to solve pressing problems. It is not enough for scientists to declare there is a problem, but to also suggest scientifically valid solutions to alleviate the problem.
The seemingly tense relationship scientists have with non-scientists also led to a discussion of whether science and religion are compatible. There is the widespread presumption that scientists are atheists and that scientific and spiritual views are incompatible. However, as a man of faith himself, Dr. Collins believes that there are significant questions that science alone cannot answer and that science and faith can be compatible and complementary to each other. In fact, Dr. Collins is the founder of the BioLogos Foundation, a group that fosters discussions about the intersection of Christianity and science. Similar to the relationship between scientists and politicians, Dr. Collins believes that the intersection of science and faith can be gratifying if each dominion is properly understood and respected. Overall, this discussion was a reminder that as scientists, our relationships with non-scientists can be strengthened with a mutual understanding and respect for each other along with a commitment to communicate our scientific discoveries in a way that non-scientists can understand and relate to.
Another thought provoking topic of discussion was related to unrecognized issues with increasing diversity in biomedical research. The NIH encourages institutions to train research scientists of various races, national origin, religion, gender identity, and disability. There are funding opportunities reserved for certain groups specified to be underrepresented in the biomedical sciences. These groups include individuals from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, individuals with disabilities, and individuals from a disadvantaged background. According to the NIH, this is in response to research showing that scientists and trainees from diverse backgrounds and life experiences bring different perspectives and creativity to address complex scientific problems. The NIH believes that a diverse scientific workforce enhances scientific innovation, global competitiveness, and pubic trust.
However, there is a conundrum related to enhancing diversity in biomedical research that remains largely unrecognized. The term diversity, as used in biomedical research, is a comprehensive term including all racial and ethnic identities, national origins, genders, and physical abilities. This inadvertently implies that the life experiences and obstacles faced by each underrepresented group are similar, when in reality the life experiences and obstacles faced by each underrepresented group are vastly dissimilar. This dissimilarity requires distinct academic and social support that is tailored for each individual. As a deaf scientist myself, I can personally relate as I know my life experiences and academic needs are vastly different than those that belong to a racial minority. For example, deaf and hard-of-hearing scientists require financially expensive accommodations such as sign language interpreters in order to be successful. Yet, despite the push to diversify the biomedical workforce, not all institutions willingly support the needs of deaf scientists.
This in turns leads to an unequal support of individual underrepresented groups that make up a diverse workforce. This is seen in the variety of scientific organizations and conferences geared towards scientists of racial minorities, for example, but not scientists with physical disabilities. Additionally, the NIH financially supports Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Awards (IRACDA), programs that are aimed to develop a diverse group of highly trained scientists. However, out of the 22 currently funded IRACDA programs, the University of Rochester’s IRACDA program that is designed for deaf and hard-of-hearing scientists is the first and only NIH-funded program that is focused on an underrepresented group that is not grounded on race, ethnicity, or gender.
Dr. Collins recognized that there is a disparity in the representation of individual underrepresented groups that make up a diverse workforce. He recognized that biomedical research may not be as diverse as we perceive it to be. Interestingly, however, while Dr. Collins recognized this unaddressed need, he admitted that he had no answers related to this issue. This emphasized the lack of awareness the broader scientific community has related to the disparity that exists within the population of underrepresented scientists. On a positive note, Dr. Collins was attentive to our concerns and agreed action from the NIH was needed. This discussion was yet another reminder that effective communication, mutual understanding, and mutual respect are paramount for resolving pressing issues among scientists and non-scientists.
Bench to Bedside and Back Again: The Quest to be Ever Better
Translational Research Public and Private We are at an intersection in science, health and society where the NIH’s focus on “bench to beside” research has become a cornerstone of the institutes’ funding and research philosophy. As the conversation evolved with the NIH director last Friday, it became clear that such research is not just limited to a select group of scientists but is truly a mission of social responsibility. One such conversational piece was centered on our discussion of religion and science, a very storied topic over the ages. The NIH director showed shrewd wisdom in his tactful discussion of the issue, challenging us as people of faith and scientists to engage in cross conversations and bridge the divide.
Typically, this topic is addressed as one of scientific communication; however, in the growing confines of science, communication plays an integral role in our ability to perform translational research. It’s important that as translational researchers, we have this skill. Performing “TEAM” science requires a greater deal of communication than our siloed training may have made us aware. To this end, Dr. Collins provided personal examples of collaborations between his lab and another, bridging the gaps in knowledge.
Now, we may have been advised, or have heard at various conferences, this isn’t something for young investigators to engage in. However, the director assured us from data he was seeing that such investigators were as competitive, if not more so, than those who weren’t engaging in team-based or translational research. This brings us to our next topic of big data and the presence of rigor and responsible conducts surrounding research.
Big Data The director made it clear that the NIH takes a very serious interest in the wealth of data generated from its numerous directorates. As such, initiatives have been established such as the Big Data to Knowledge (BD2K), which seeks to use our abilities and knowledge in big data to understand and advance our understanding of health. But it’s not enough for the NIH to have established this initiative; as scientists we’re being encouraged to embrace such trends in the shifting landscape of the field. Fortunately, for us here at the University of Rochester, Wegmans Hall was recently dedicated and slated to open in the spring of 2017, home to the Institute of Data Science. While talking about translational research, Dr. Collins commented on how 80% of his lab is now engaged in research that is done via computer, whether it is for computational purposes or analysis. Increasingly, the field is shifting towards data driven discovery, which is why as the director put it that evening, it’s important to not only focus on publishing papers but publishing papers that produce quality reproducible data
Of course none of this will be accomplished without funding, without a diversified scientific workplace, and without communication. So how is the NIH addressing the funding gap you may be asking? What is being done as grants are rejected at record rates, while funding is 23% inflation adjusted below early 2000 highs?
Increase in Funding When we think about funding, we think about its impact on our career paths, and if you’re reading this, you are undoubtedly seeking various career paths and an MD or PhD. Part of the lunch conversation focused on the needs of MD/PhD students and the importance of improving the trainee timeline, such that trainees are not spending 80-20 on clinical time and research time but closer to 60-40. In this way, the NIH is trying to support institutions that realize balance is crucial for trainees to have a successful career as an MD/PhD. This will allow trainees to be more competitive in the grant process, and both in their research and clinical practices. For those of us doing translational work, it means supporting higher-risk funding opportunities through the NIH Director awards.
Our own Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI) seeks to support such young investigators, who conduct preliminary research to target these awards, so it was exciting to me to learn that NIH helps young investigators by providing early investigator awards, which are not open to established investigators. He went further to state that the NIH would give priority to investigators, who have yet to receive grants over sufficiently, funded investigators competing for the same funding mechanism. At the same time, NIH seeks to improve the quality of grant reviews by encouraging established investigators to return and attend relevant study sections. It is imperative for young investigators to have access to expert feedback on their proposals. While not every grant will be funded, expert opinions can provide valuable feedback to support a second attempt or a new direction.
Meliora Now it’s not everyday, one gets to eat lunch and talk to the NIH director. It was an exciting opportunity, but at the end of the lunch hour, the group discussion made it clear that Dr. Collins was just as human as the rest of us. The director made us remember that as scientists, we are as diverse as the public. With that diversity, we must learn to communicate to people of all faiths, backgrounds and political orientations. We shouldn’t shy away but seek out such opportunities, demonstrating inclusion in our pursuit of knowledge. We should engage and seek out diverse career paths, challenging disciplines in science and engage in high-risk, high-reward science with the support of translational researchers. Our discourse during lunch with our colleagues and NIH director Francis Collins showed that all of us here at Rochester are called to be more effective and inclusive scientific communicators and exemplify the University of Rochester’s motto “Ever Better.”
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