Sunday, June 28, 2009

Cancer Incrementalism & Moving Towards Knowledge Collaboratives

The New York Times has a not-too-surprising article about the state of the grants system when it comes to innovative cancer research. They offered a breakdown of public funding through the National Cancer Institute::

After forty years, the article cites the death rate has changed only slightly. The article cites that "incrementalist" research are the projects that tend to get funded, so, in many respects, oncology research is much like mainstream Hollywood. Radical ones without preliminary data are riskier and hence are less likely to get funding. Readers of Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions wouldn't be shocked at all. This bit is rather telling::
"One major impediment, scientists agree, is the grant system itself. It has become a sort of jobs program, a way to keep research laboratories going year after year with the understanding that the focus will be on small projects unlikely to take significant steps toward curing cancer."
This article made me think of two things. One, stemming from a research project I just completed on web communities, is the importance of research that is patient-centred, fostering understanding of disease in deep context. Three-and-a-half years ago, a researcher working on breast cancer genetics received half-a-million dollars from a MacArthur "genius" Grant. In addition to the genetics research, she was a clinician at the University of Chicago, committed to "finding and testing improved methods for the prediction, prevention, and early detection of cancer in moderate and high-risk populations." While I'm not advocating all research be patient-centred, one challenge I do see is coordinating research that develops knowledge among researchers as part of an overarching strategy.

I say this, as it leads to by second point. Years ago, I saw a marginal film by the BBC, Life Story, which was about the fascinating story about the race to discover the double helix. James D. Watson and Francis Crick are racing to prove their ideas before Linus Pauling, Maurice Wilkins, or Rosalind Franklin can. The first ten minutes set up the story::

In the end, Watson and Crick, in the then-nascent field of molecular biology had the intuitive theory, but it was Rosalind Franklin's x-ray crystallography data that proved the helical structure of DNA. Her data was perplexing, as it showed an X-shape::

Watson and Crick saw it as a 2-dimensional depiction of their idea of the 3-dimensional helix, viewed from above. As an aside, Franklin would have shared the Nobel if she hadn't died before it was awarded.

The competitive nature of grant-driven science often thwarts collaboration. Funding entities and agencies could look towards being knowledge brokers, but that would entail setting up new organizational structures and policies, which would not be a mean feat. Changing the ways of science {or any social process} reminded me of Kuhn's book quoting Max Plank:: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” I know that there are some efforts to move in this direction, which will likely be facilitated by genetics and Health/Medicine 2.0.

In the private sector, 3M altered its structure to better reward teams for innovations, resulting in more collaboration and commercialization of new innovations. Food for thought.

Twitterversion:: #newblog unsurprising NYT art. {27.june} on state of #cancer research. time for knowledge collaboratives? #health2.0 @Prof_K

Song:: Particle Man - They Might Be Giants

Video:: Paracetamoxyfrusebendroneomycin


Anonymous said...

...and the 'collaborative' part of this is why i support the looser communicative structures (rather than the terms 'unstructured' or 'unorthodox')of the Internet. it doesn't always matter HOW it's written but how convenient it is to brainstorm and pick up bits and pieces that lurk between others' ears.


Kenneth M. Kambara said...

Thanks for stopping by.
Yes, I think as we move towards "Med 3.0," it will be increasingly important for researchers to share, use, develop, and repurpose knowledge, in tacit and explicit forms using looser communicative structures. I think such collaborations will allow researchers to make progress in leaps through the synthesis of ideas. The territorial fiefdoms of fields prevalent in the peer-review process inhibits this.