Monday, July 09, 2007

Combined Degree Programs

I am part of an NIH-funded program that has been around for more than 30 years. The combined degree MD/PhD training program, called the Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP, pronounced "messed up" by some of us) serves a need to better bridge basic science with clinical implementation. The idea is to train impressionable young scientists and clinicians in the ways of science AND medicine so that when they grow up, they can speak the same language and navigate the varied cultures of science, medicine and engineering. The result is a long, sometimes grueling path leading to a career in academic medicine. Every year, another 300 or so students sign up for this gig. One benefit of these programs is that we trainees don't have to pay for school, and get a livable stipend. The other side of the coin is that upon graduation we each enter a lifelong fundraising campaign to support our research. The big donors here could be private industry, but usually the benefactor is the Federal Government, via the National Institutes of Health.

Well, the NIH is seeking advice about how to reform the granting process so that the money (your taxes) they spend is most effective. For instructions on how to give advice, switch to this post. To hear one of my 'creative' ideas, keep reading.

I recently entered Seed Magazine's science writing contest. (The topic was science literacy.) Having only this blog as my science writing experience, I do not expect to win anything. For me, the contest helped me form an idea about what is missing in the public science communication complex. At the core of science literacy today is the need for effective translators; between religious folk and scientists; between doctors and newspapermen; between researchers and housewives; between professors and policymakers.

The MSTP has filled a critical need to connect the bench with the bedside. Sure, it takes too long for us to finish, and there is an attrition rate, but MD/PhDs tend to get grants because they understand what is needed on either the medical or the basic science side. Furthermore, several competitive programs exist to fund slightly higher risk efforts in translational medicine. Following these leads, the NIH would do well to support a small and competitive initiative to better train civic scientists. These would be professionals who garner some of their salary support solely to communicate with the public or with policymakers. A small number of students could earn dual degrees in hard science and communications or engineering and political science. These people will be the go-to resource for the public's questions and concerns about controversial topics like stem cell research, nanotechnology, designer genomes and drug safety. They also will be trained to develop innovative mechanisms to instill in Joe Public a scientific sense - that science does more than generate trivia.

This is my charge to the NIH (and other Federal funding agencies, for that matter):
Support Translational Science

Translators to the public and for the public. That will be money that can only feed back into the system.

1 comment:

Drugmonkey said...

Interesting proposal Thomas. I'd like to see pipelining into public policy myself. It would have to steer clear of the prohibition against using NIH funds to lobby, though.

This reminds me a little bit of an effort to create postdoctoral training that had an explicit teaching component. Preparation for teaching intensive careers. It never really seemed to catch on much despite the huge bulk (majority?) of Ph.D. academic careers that will feature significant teaching. So there is some structural precedent anyway.