$3B for research: More, or more of the same?

The recent announcement   that the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative plans to put this amount toward “preventing, curing or managing all diseases by the end of the century”  got my attention.  For me, the announcement raised the same question that other high profile, big dollar efforts have raised in the past: will advances come from plowing more money into doing science? How about also investing in how we do science?  

An article about the initiative in the Boston Globe  seems to suggest that Chan/ Zuckerberg are wondering  this as well:  “But many researchers are enthusiastic not just because of the funding Chan and Zuckerberg are offering, but their approach. They are pushing greater collaboration among scientists and engineers across different institutions, attempting to break down silos in models similar to those promoted by Vice President Joe Biden’s Cancer Moonshot initiative.”   

So, how is greater collaboration and breaking of silos supposed to happen?  Because without that, this $3B initiative is simply paying everyone more money do what they’ve been doing (that’s not bad, it’s just not enough).

A recent article in the magazine Lab Manager “For Managers, Emotional Intelligence Trumps IQ” by F. Key Kidder makes this point eloquently. In it, Kidder quotes Thomas Cech, past president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute:  “If I had one piece of advice to give..it’s that although you’ve been hired for your scientific skills and research potential, your eventual success will depend heavily on your ability to guide, lead, and empower others to do their best work.”

Anyone who has spent an hour in the scientific world knows that simply saying “Go collaborate more, and oh, by the way, break down a few silos while you’re at it” isn’t the answer.  Like scientific skills, collaborative, managerial and leadership skills are not innate. The skills involved are behavioral and they can be taught and learned.  So let’s invest some of the $3B in the people who do the science so that they can do better science in addition to doing more of it.

 Carl M. Cohen, Ph.D.                                                                                          President, Science Management Associates