Short-termism and conservatism in medical research

In The Life Scientific (BBC Radio 4, 5 Feb 2013) Jim Al-Khalili spoke with breast cancer pioneer, Professor Valerie Beral director of the University of Oxford Cancer Epidemiology Unit. Discussing long-term research she noted:

There is a problem with the current ethos of medical research. Grant givers want results in 3–5, not 10–20, years. It’s not the way medical research is going at the moment. The development of The Pill took place outside established medical funding (by a patron), as did IVF. My guess is that some wealthy person will one day fund an institute to do this research. They won’t publish every year in Nature or Science but they will get a Nobel Prize.

A related point is made in Tim Harford’s Pop-Up Economics, Hotpants v the knockout mouse (BBC Radio 4, 16/01/2013) in which he argues that organisations such as the National Institutes for Health (NIH) fund innovations that represent marginal improvements and relates the life story of Mario Capecchi, who studied genetics at Harvard but concluded it had become a bastion of ‘short-term intellectual gratification’. He went to the University of Utah and setup the Eccles Institute of Human Genetics. His work there on the ‘knockout mouse’ became the foundation stone for all gene therapy and he won a Nobel Prize accordingly. Harford notes that people such as Kopecki look like they are failing – until they succeed. He notes that institutions such as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, where Capecchi is now a principal, is more tolerant of failure than those such as NIH.


One Comment so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Impossible to make this point to the Enterprise Boards in the UK.
    I usually end with a sentence like:
    “I am not saying that all my inventions work but if we don’t try them they will NEVER work”
    Cautious and risk averse at Innovate UK, professing to being careful with public money they pour millions down the drain with silly projects for products already widely available like LED light bulbs, copper foam, diamond tipped saws, anaerobic digestion and many more which have no chance of commercial success.

Add Your Comments

You must be logged in to post a comment.