Funding: to Harriman

Gregory R. Harriman gregoryh at
Sun Dec 24 16:17:40 EST 1995

In article
<Pine.SOL.3.91.951224141409.29841B-100000 at mcmail.CIS.McMaster.CA>,
berezin at MCMAIL.CIS.MCMASTER.CA (Alexander Berezin) wrote:
> Dear Gregory,
> Reading word-by-word what you are saying, I can 
> see a point in almost everything you say. Yes,
> there are 'good' and 'productive' big labs.
> (question still 'good' and 'productive' for
> what ?). Yes, not all go there 'for money' (although 
> I do know quite few young fellows, both genders, who 
> recently dropped half-way their biomedical PhDs 
> to go to, etc.


Does deciding to go to medical school represent some kind of failure on
their part?  Since when is becoming a physician such a great sin?

> But being 'insider' of the biomedical research 
> you may (slightly or strongly - I don't know)
> overestimate what people outside of it think about 
> the importance of it for the real progress and
> improvement of medicine. You may be very enthusiastic
> about how much molecular biology and genetic engineering
> can do for cancer, Alzheimer, AIDS, or whatever. 
> But people 'out there' not necessary see it this way.
> What people see is that there is NO real progress on
> cancer despite all the billions spend on it (try to argue 
> overwise to a mother whose child just died of leukemia). 
> What people see ON THE GROUND are largely broken promises. 
> And yes, that's why people go (often in desparation) 
> to 'faith healers' and other likes. And paradoxically,
> more and more people see the MAINSTREAM medicine as a 
> just a form of highly sophisticated quackery which really 
> can't do too much. In short, its geting more and more
> clear (like in my earlier example with undelivered 
> thero-nucler fusion) that Big Biomedical Establishement 
> simply does not delievr. I personally, very sorry to say you
> this, but it seems to me rather unlikely that BBE can 
> continue on the same gears for too much longer on the 
> basis of promises.   

     You are perhaps overly pessimistic regarding the viablity of the
biomedical establishment, however, you do raise some valid and important
issues.  I believe one of the biggest failures of the biomedical
establishment (your so-called BBE) is the way it has communicated with lay
people and the general public about medical and scientific achievements. 
Biomedical scientists often miscommunicate with the public regarding their
research, for a variety of reasons.   Frequently, they get excited about
their accomplishments and this exuberance is misunderstood.  Sometimes,
they focus on the long-term significance of the work but fail to put it
into perspective in terms of the lack of immediate benefits.   And, like
all people, they sometimes exagerate the importance of their work.  

     Regardless, there can be little doubt, when seen from an informed and
objective point of view, that remarkable progress has been made over the
last 30 years in our understanding of how living organisms, and especially
human beings, function at the cellular and even molecular level.  While
many of these discoveries will have profound effects on our's or our
children's lives in the future, they unfortunately may not provide
immediate benefit to people with diseases, such as cancer.  A good example
of this is my previous posting regarding the BRCA genes.  We now know that
mutations in certain genes lead to cancer.  While this knowledge will
allow us to screen and hopefully prevent some cancers in the future, it
does nothing for the person who has cancer today.  Often, these scientific
discoveries are sensationalized (and the press bears some of the blame in
this) to make it sound as if a cure for cancer has just been discovered.
Clearly while that is not the case, there is every reason to be confident
that such discoveries will ultimately lead to better treatments or even
cures for many of these diseases.

     The challenge to the "BBE" is to do a better job of communicating
with the public.  Biomedical scientists must try harder to explain not
only the significance, but also the limitations, of discoveries.  By doing
this successfully, biomedical science will gain better credibility and
support from the general public.

Greg Harriman

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