Bring Back the Ivory Tower, Part 1 of 2

Photo of Ken Dill

Ken Dill

Chemical substances and the surfaces on which they operate have physical properties. Otherwise, for example, how would proteins fold and then stay folded? And when you think about it, how does water, the most ubiquitous of solvents, really work at the biophysical level?

These kinds of questions keep protein expert Ken Dill, associate dean for research in the UCSF School of Pharmacy, energized. But it is America's turn away from scientific innovation — and the free ranging inquiry that underpins discovery — that keeps him exercised.

"We've gone from an era of deep innovation to one of incremental advances," Dill decries.

But how can this be? The National Institutes of Health (NIH), the grant making giant of biomedicine, now has a US $30 billion annual budget. Surely all this money is being used to fund something more than incremental advances.

Yes it's true. There is still great science. What is lacking is truly deep innovation, Dill says with some sadness. To be fair, he continues, the NIH occasionally funds a blue-sky leap, but the very size of its budget puts a premium on immediate accountability. And immediacy is the enemy of real, bite-the-bullet, dream-big science.

Dill does not blame the NIH leadership. Big budgets mean big expectations. And "be patient" is not a message US congressional oversight committees and taxpayers want to hear. "Their questions are always bottom line questions like 'Where's the payoff?' 'What new diseases have you cured today?'"

The result, says Dill, is a ferociously competitive atmosphere where 20 to 70 reviewers at NIH sit in a room passing judgment on grant proposals, one at a time. And the review process itself is often a collective search for flaws in proposals, not a vital pursuit to find something new.

Given the pressure it's not surprising, says Dill, that "grant proposals now succeed based on their predictability, on the overwhelming preliminary evidence that the project won't fail, not on their innovation." What has made the NIH so risk averse? "It's mainly the mechanism, not the reviewers," says Dill. "Essentially all of the NIH's one hundred review panels have the same problem."

Concern sparks activism

The affable and loquacious Dill is not a verbal bomb-thrower, exploding into a rage at a once fruitful system gone bad. If anything, his is a parental voice of concern, full of disappointment.

And like a concerned parent, he wants to fix the problem. So over the last eight years, he has become a national advocate for reform. A past president of the Biophysical Society, which recently named him its 2007 Distinguished Service Award winner, Dill is co-chair of the society's public affairs committee. He also is co-founder of the Bridging the Sciences Coalition, which brings together science societies to speak as one voice for deeper innovation and cross-disciplinary research. In this role, Dill makes on average six trips to Washington, DC each year to meet with fellow scientists, US Congress members and staffers, and administration officials. His message: innovation sparks advances in knowledge, and advances create competitiveness.

Still, one could wonder why Dill, a respected UCSF scientist for decades, would make such a fuss. Dill pauses, sighs, and then smiles. Scientists understand that they are part of long chain of theorists and experimentalists that stretch back to the ancient Greeks. At some point in their career, some scientists — and he counts himself in their number — realize that they want to contribute to the long-term health of the discipline. They become troubleshooters and advocates, illuminating stress points in the system with a mix of futurism, history and anthropology.

In keeping with that spirit, when Dill describes his youthful excitement about science in the 1950s and 1960s, he is speaking, yes about the "put-the-man-on-the-moon applied variety" but also about the growing network of laboratories and think tanks that made curiosity fundable and the serendipitous sexy.

"Harry Truman and JFK had a new vision of science. We need that king of big thinking again." What Dill sees instead are oversight-driven research funding, the demise of such industrial research facilities as Bell Laboratories, and a giant funding hole between the biomedical imperative of NIH and the hard physics directive of the National Science Foundation.

"My field of biophysics is well-funded. But you can't get research funded at the moment for the deep physics, which might have a payoff for biology. It's trapped between the two agencies."

That fact, according to Dill, has created an ironic reversal of fortune, literally. "It used to be that academic scientists were accused of living in an ivory tower, of sitting around in laboratories taking federal dollars and doing things that were never going to pay off." Some did pay off in a very big way, of course. Think new drugs, semiconductors, computers, telecommunications, lasers, liquid-crystal displays, and the Internet, to name only some examples.

Dill hasn't heard the term "ivory tower," though, in a decade or two, and he knows why. "There is huge pressure on academic scientists not to be in the ivory tower anymore, so now if we have a super blue sky idea, the only way to get that funded is to go to venture capitalists. I find that both interesting and sad."

Part 2: Next time, Dill gets specific about how we can reignite the spirit of scientific innovation. He also describes his own favorite blue-sky project. Are you ready to explore a pre-biotic world?

Bring Back the Ivory Tower, Part 2

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Dill Research Group
Bridging the Sciences Coalition
Biophysical Society
Discussion: How does basic science defend America?
Closer to Truth, PBS