Thursday, 13 June 2013 16:43

Dr. Z to ASCB Council: Basic Research Drives All Bioscience

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Elias Zerhouni Elias Zerhouni

The last time Elias Zerhouni appeared before an official ASCB gathering in 2007, he was still National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director. Zerhouni had already made a big splash at the ASCB Annual Meeting in San Diego the year before when he volunteered as a judge for CellSlam, the ASCB's wildly popular stand-up science slam. By all accounts, "Dr. Z" rocked the house. Zerhouni repeated as an unflappable and untoppable CellSlam judge at the ASCB's 2007 Annual Meeting in Washington. He ended his six-year tenure as NIH Director in 2008.

Five years later, Zerhouni returned to ASCB, addressing the Society's spring Council meeting June 4 in Washington, DC. His message was anything but comic, given the overall budget stalemate and the gloomy outlook for NIH funding. But Zerhouni brushed aside supposed conflicts between translational versus basic research. "They put you in boxes," he said. For any progress in human health, Zerhouni said, "The problem has always been our lack of basic biology and a fundamental understanding of the disease mechanism."

Zerhouni has kept busy between his ASCB appearances. Since leaving NIH, he has served or advised a long list of high-profile institutions including the Lasker Foundation, Research!America, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In 2010, President Obama appointed him along with Bruce Alberts and Ahmed Zewail as Science Envoys to Muslim-majority countries around the world. Since 2011 has been President for Global R&D at the pharmaceutical giant, Sanofi. Speaking out, Zerhouni broke into the headlines last February when he warned that the automatic federal budget "sequestration" cuts would "maim" a generation of young scientists. 

During his NIH tenure, Zerhouni was known for developing the "NIH roadmap." As he told the ASCB Council, the "roadmap" addresses the obstructions to innovation while keeping in mind that basic biology drives all translational and clinical progress. Ideally, Zerhouni said that we should have 55-65% of the NIH budget invested in basic research. But that's not going to happen. "So you say, 'There you go again. You're an MD'." Zerhouni dismissed that with the ultimate Washington warning: "Don't be naïve."

Instead, Zerhouni proposed a gedanken thought experiment to Council. Imagine for a moment that NIH was divided into three: a research agency for basic, an agency for translational, and an agency for clinical research. "Let's suppose that 60% of the NIH budget (today) was going to basic research. How long would it stay that way? What will happen (to that) over ten years?" Imagine the Congressional mandates and earmarks. Imagine the disease advocacy groups. Imagine, Zerhouni said to his audience of basic biology researchers that they were appearing before a Congressional appropriations committee with an NIH budget justified only as "knowledge for knowledge's sake."

But Zerhouni called on the basic research community to speak up for itself. "You have a case to make (for basic research as a large percentage of the NIH budget) and you will get support but don't underestimate the tactics and strategies that you need to use that support constructively," he said. Finding allies and not alienating them is critical.

Channeling Benjamin Franklin, Zerhouni added, "We have to hang together or we'll hang alone."

John Fleischman

John is ASCB Senior Science Writer and the author among other things of two nonfiction books for older children, "Phineas Gage: A Gruesome But True Story About Brain Science" and "Black & White Airmen," both from Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt, Boston.

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