Why ACS research grants are so important

I’ve posted observations before that the trend in life science is toward multi-disciplinary projects combining scientists from many areas of expertise and a heck of a lot of equipment. I’ve even suggested that the ACS follow that trend.

I recant.

I recently interviewed one of the Society’s extramural grant recipients, Dr. Kathleen Collins, and she totally convinced me that the Big Science bandwagon is not one the ACS should get on.

Here’s our conversation.

On Wednesday, November 12, I met with Kathleen Collins, PhD, Associate Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, UC Berkeley. Kathleen is a recipient of an ACS extramural grant, “Investigation of Human Telomerase,” 2001-05.

I intended to talk with Dr. Collins about both telomeres and about how ACS funds support the work of her lab during the hour I had asked to spend with her. We didn’t get around to telomeres. But I did learned some important things from her, and I think they are things Society people should know about. I’d like to see her have the chance to talk with our leadership about research as the Society works on prioritizing how our resources should be allocated.

I’d venture to say that most of us in a research-supporting agencies like ACS are not aware of the degree to which what happens in lab research is influenced by the constraints imposed by funding agencies. Right now, according to Kathleen, few sources exist to support an independent science lab like hers that proceeds with research from one step to the next following a path indicated by its recent findings or emerging questions. Kathleen says ACS funding is extremely valuable because it is one source that leaves the “strings” loose enough to enable her to exercise her judgment about where the work should go.

What this means becomes clearer when you contrast the way Dr. Collins works with trends that are going on now in biological research. With the Human Genome Project biology entered the realm of “big science.” Long-term, big-budget science projects traditionally have been the province of fields such as physics with its particle accelerators or space telescopes. Now, however, the ambitions of life science have increased and funding is being directed by agencies largely into inter-disciplinary institutes with many people and with large resources of equipment and computing power. NIH and NCI, for instance, have declared objectives that go in that direction.

According to Dr. Collins, there is certainly a place for that kind of science, but it is unfortunate when virtually all funding sources adopt the same orientation at the same time. It nearly shuts off funding for everything else. Right now it’s difficult to get funds for research unless you’re part of a multi-disciplinary group.

This is not to say that her lab does not practice a team approach. Labs tend to be close-knit groups, and virtually everyone participates directly or indirectly in projects. People with different perspectives and with different expertise contribute to or comment on the work.

There are several problems with the current big-institution approach to research that Kathleen mentioned. For one, scientific discovery does not generally follow a predictable, manageable path. Instead it zigzags from one finding to another. Investigators may need to take off in a new direction to confirm a finding, to resolve a contradiction, or to follow-up a question that arises. This process tends to be curtailed in more institutionalized settings. Indeed, it’s not clear that larger projects produce more results in terms of new knowledge than funding more numerous smaller investigations.

Another difficulty is that funding limitations are driving good people out of science as career. Academic science is not a high-paying profession. When the frustration of not being able to get funding is added to the low salary, some leave the university for industry. There they are more product developers than investigators. Furthermore, the university lab is where new scientists are developed, where they learn their trade, and the flight of enthusiastic scientists from universities like Berkeley will mean a shortage of experienced practitioners to prepare the next generation. A lab has graduate students and post-doctorates honing their skills. Currently post-docs are seeing the funding hassles and many are opting not to pursue academic careers.

That’s truly ironic. More than ever pharmaceutical companies are finding that they must depend on academic research to come up with the breakthroughs that lead to original products. It’s pretty well documented that their big, industrial-scale labs don’t produce creative outcomes. Dr. Collins says that real progress only comes from high quality science.

This story is a rather circuitous route to explain why Kathleen Collins is so enthusiastic about the way the Society funds projects. Without ACS funding she and her lab would be doing contract work for pharmaceutical or biotech firms just to pay the bills. Not trivial work, perhaps, but not the way to break new ground either.

Kathleen is passionate and articulate in expressing her views about how important it is that the American Cancer Society continue supporting cancer research in the way it does.

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