Are bureaucracy and funding hurdles stopping real medical progess?
“We’re in a posture of knowing that time is precious and collaboration is essential,” CDC Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat, M.D, told Reuters in early March.
What we are seeing right now is unprecedented. The threat of Zika virus remains large, yet underestimated. As the warm Gulf air creeps its way north as the Eastern seaboard heads into its summer, with it will come Zika-bearing mosquitos, making their way closer and closer to our homes. However, I would like this article to focus not on the threat of Zika (albeit a great one), but on some of the changes needed to combat this imminent world health crisis.
The only way to swiftly eradicate this threat from the face of the Earth is through increased collaboration of researchers. Let me say that again, the ONLY way to eliminate Zika is by knocking down the barriers of collaboration and rewriting the current timeline for research. Collaboration has long been an integral part of advancements in science and medicine, but, unfortunately, the nature of such collaboration has shifted toward partnerships rather than collaborators. This means that institutions, the government and companies are deliberate with whom they work with, and instead of prioritizing advancements in knowledge, their first concern has become boosting themselves and their partners. Notoriety and fame have become paramount, and that is truly impeding our potential for advancements across the board.
It is clear where the source of this lies. The process of obtaining funding is extremely convoluted, and it fosters an element of secrecy and selfishness among scientists. I have witnessed this process firsthand. It takes tens of pages, multiple submissions, hours of preliminary research and sometimes over a year just to get a response from the government—which could still be rejection—in regard to funding. This slows idea sharing to a halt. I recently submitted a grant proposal to the government for about $500,000 for a research project that I have already invested hours of work and dedicated thousands of dollars university funding to. However, in this interim period while the grant is pending, researchers are encouraged not to share details of their work, so they can retain the recognition and rights to their own idea. This cannot be the way we go about conducting research—especially in cases like Zika.
I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to attend the Annual Meeting of the American Association of Cancer Research (AACR) in April, at which Vice President Joe Biden would later speak. In his speech to 19,000 of the world’s preeminent cancer researchers, and it was clear that the main message of the speech addressed the same sentiment many Zika experts have. He said of the intricate funding process that it is causing us to “slow down our best, young minds making them spend years and years in the lab before they get their own grants.” Frustrated with the current systems, Biden vowed to tear down the silos that remain in the way of researchers today.
Biden expressed his contempt for the valuable research that sits “behind the paywalls of journals.” He attributed this directly to the broken system that causes cutting edge research to be delayed for up to a year through editing and publishing, and, even then, requires a subscription—often costing thousands of dollars—to the journal itself.
This cannot be the case for cancer, and especially not for epidemics like Zika and the Ebola outbreak of last year. While research is an integral part of advancing our society, infectious diseases like Zika need to be put on the fast-track. In early April, with Zika slated to strike U.S. cities in mere few months, congress blocked President Obama’s proposal for $1.9 billion in emergency funding to combat the virus. This has already begun to prevent cities like Los Angeles from filling 17 vacant positions and upgrading equipment in its public health laboratory. While we know Zika can cause microcephaly and other birth defects in the unborn children of pregnant mothers, researchers are worried that is not all the harm it does. With such a poorly understood virus making its way closer and closer to American masses, it is imperative that we “knock down silos,” as Biden said, and change the way we research, so we can expedite our efforts to withstand a great risk like Zika.
By Michael Albert
Artwork by Hannah Lachow