What Should A Chief Scientific Officer Do?


Leonard Zwelling

MD Anderson has had vice presidents for research, chief academic officers, and provosts. I am not at all sure it ever had a chief scientific officer until recently. The duties of the CSO cannot be those of the chief academic officer because there is also a chief academic officer currently. I would have thought that the chief scientific officer would be the best scientist on the block, the one with the clearest vision for the future of basic, clinical, translational and population-based science. He or she would be responsible for recruiting the next generation of scientific leadership at MD Anderson and for the most part be the chief advocate for the science faculty at an institution at which 80% of the revenue is generated by the clinicians. It’s what the past VP’s, CAO’s and Provosts have done.

But here is what the job appears to be according to the memo from the president of MD Anderson regarding the appointment of the new CSO.

“The CSO, who reports to me, champions innovation, develops strong partnerships and provides focused leadership on the science and clinical translation of our research programs.”

This sounds to me like a CSO at a pharmaceutical company not one at an academic university-based cancer center.

This may tell us a great deal about the president’s vision for the more traditional academic activities of the faculty. Rather than pursue science for science’s sake as had been the case for many years, the science faculty of MD Anderson will be focused on the translational aspect of bench science—commercialization.

All I can say is here we go again.

While it is always great to generate science that can be reduced to practical applications for clinical care and the detection, treatment and prevention of cancer, this cannot be the chief concern of the science faculty at an academic institution of higher learning. MD Anderson is still part of the University of Texas, no? Why?

Because it is pursuit of science for science’s sake as was done by Jim Allison, that leads to the breakthroughs in cancer therapy. A breakthrough cannot be planned. Implicit in this new sort of mission is that science, and which science will lead to clinical utility, is predictable. It isn’t. You never know where the next idea that will lead to a major breakthrough in cancer care will come from and if the major impetus behind the science is practical and applied “innovation,” I fear that technology and drug and device development may trump the traditional role that science has had at MD Anderson. This would be most unfortunate, but it is a strategic choice and does make the president’s vision clear as did his selection of an incumbent for the job.

When John Mendelsohn was seeking to fill the job of CSO, he was looking for a member of the National Academy of Sciences who would be the hottest shot on a block full of pretty hot shots. Dr. Pisters may think differently. He may view the cancer center as having to have the practical application of everything done at the institution as taking precedence over the more traditional academic pursuits. It’s the same philosophy used by the drug companies to maximize profits and please shareholders. It won’t cure cancer. In fact, the last guy found that out already. This experiment has been done at MD Anderson. And it failed.

It will be very special to see how this philosophy plays out along with those of “professionalism,” “quality’” and EQ. It’s all one big experiment. Whether this experiment will have the impact on cancer that the ones formerly done by the science faculty of MD Anderson did (think Nobel Prize) remains to be seen.

Leonard Zwelling