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Biden bucks the culture of research

December 7, 2016

Vice President Joe Biden recently gave one of the most intelligent comments by a government official that I have ever heard on the topic of medical research. He appeared on the Late Show on December 6, 2016. I posted a while ago about the controversial idea of “big science”.

Biden and others have popularized the use of the term “moonshot” to inspire what might be done in cancer research if the nation were to consolidate its efforts. Interestingly, he didn’t focus on the consolidation of money, which is often one of the big deficiencies that is cited regarding the way in which scientific research is administered. Surprisingly, he focused on data sharing!

This is equally relevant in neuroscience. On the experimental and clinical side, data sharing is a difficult issue to deal with because of challenges with file formatting, protocols, and patient privacy. On the computational side, the sharing of computer codes can pose challenges in terms of intellectual property rights and the vulnerability of giving away the fruits of intensive years of effort.

Some of Biden’s statements that caught my attention are the following. He introduced the idea by saying:

“… if you’re prepared to share that data, which the culture of medicine isn’t prepared to do yet….”

He was surprisingly forward about what he sees as a problem. He tried to explain an important scientific concept regarding patient individuality by saying:

“A treatment works on one person and not another.”

He even touched on computational technology by discussing how IBM’s Watson is being used to analyze cancer data to “narrow the field exponentially”.

He summarized the issue by saying:

“The biggest thing is changing the culture of sharing the data… not hording it.”

I point all this out because government officials (or politicians, as we usually call them) understandably tend to direct the discussion in terms that connect directly to laypeople. For example, cancer research is perhaps most appreciated by the public in terms of mortality rates and the devastation caused within families. It is easiest to frame the issue as a mystery that simply needs to be solved, and there is little effort spent to help the public understand the underlying challenges. Most laypeople will just accept that science is “hard”, and going further may be seen like a waste of effort on the part of politicians.

Biden’s comments on the medical research culture are fascinating to me, partly because someone in his position is saying them on popular television, and partly because he articulated the issue so well. It was clear to me that he really has tried to understand the issues from the standpoint of someone who just wants to find a solution. I feel the impact on the cancer research community will be positive and will extend to all of scientific research.

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