Science: The Final Frontier

Science: The Final Frontier


Leonard Zwelling

In this opinion piece in the NY Times on January 5, 2018, Neal F. Lane and Michael Riordan discuss the need for the naming of a science advisor to the current occupant of the Oval Office. Given the long list of policy issues that depend upon the proper analysis of current scientific knowledge (climate change, vaccines, nuclear weaponry) and the fact that judgments need to be made in these areas without perfect knowledge, a science advisor is a good idea. Of course, the president doesn’t seem to have much regard for science or the truth either, so perhaps I ask too much as do Lane and Riordan.

Fortunately, the lack of scientific input in Washington is without bearing on a similar need on Holcombe.

It has been a while since the president of MD Anderson has had a good scientific advisor at his side.

Once Dr. Kripke retired in 2007 and Dr. DuBois entered, a problem arose. Dr. Kripke was highly skilled at whispering in the ear of a president who had spun out of orbit in 2001 with scandals that should have had the board call for his ouster. Oh wait. MD Anderson has no board and so the president who misbehaved got away with it. He also was never able to find a chief scientific officer of sufficient stature (member in the National Academy of Sciences) to lead science at Anderson so it fell to the even-tempered, highly skilled, highly intelligent Dr. Kripke, a scientist of some considerable stature herself, to guide the scientific endeavor of the good ship Anderson until her retirement. She did this exceedingly well.

Dr. DuBois, probably angling to become the next president of MD Anderson, never exhibited the skill of Kripke at Mendelsohn management or administrative oversight. He lost out in the race for president and was gone a year later.

He was replaced by Dr. Dmitrovsky whose recent departure says all that needs to be said about his competence in the Provost’s job. Besides, he was advising a president of some considerable scientific accomplishment himself despite the fact that he was not up to the leadership task.

So, like the jobs of chief medical officer and chief operating officer, the job of chief academic officer (or Provost if we must in a non-university setting), is up for grabs.

This could not happen at a more opportune time. The potential for translating basic science into meaningful clinical breakthroughs in oncology has never been greater and the advantage of doing some of this within the walls of an academic institution can have financial as well as clinical benefits. Even one home-grown discovery with clinical value can mean an alternative revenue stream for the institution at which the breakthrough is discovered.

However, technology development cannot be the primary goal of the science at an academic institution. Truth must be and that means the science has to be both relevant and of high quality. There have been sufficient rumors of breaches in research integrity in all of academia of late. The non-reproducibility of some high profile findings is no secret any longer.

The next leader of MD Anderson’s science must be a scientist of high reputation, great energy, administrative skill and the willingness to close his or her lab and concentrate on advancing all science at MD Anderson—basic, clinical, translational and population-based.

I have no hope that the current occupant of the White House will ever listen to real scientists as he forms his policies on climate, nuclear proliferation, or medicine. I do hope the current president of MD Anderson will seek a leader for science on Holcombe who is up to the task. I do not believe that leader is a current member of the MD Anderson faculty, but getting that person in place should be an early goal of Dr. Pisters.

I think that person ought to come from away.

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