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From the Director: The Joy of Science, the Courage of Research

Dr. Elias Zerhouni speaks with young researchers

NIH Director Dr. Elias Zerhouni meets frequently with young researchers to help promote their interest in vital medical research.
Photo courtesy of Bill Branson

NIH Director Dr. Elias Zerhouni recently spoke to a gathering of young researchers about the importance of good scientific research for the future of our world. We are entering a new era of medicine, noted Dr. Zerhouni, one that combines an appreciation of biological complexity with the fearless search for scientific knowledge.

Opportunities Abound

There has never been a more exciting era in science, and the opportunities are enormous. Medicine is moving from the curative model of the last 5,000 years, in which symptoms are obvious, loss of function is clear, and intervention too late. We are now moving toward a more preemptive model, one that integrates quantitative techniques for greater understanding of the complexity of biological systems.

The one thing that has driven my own scientific life is marrying quantitative information with biological systems—creating measurable parameters that give insight into biology. Science is not a game of abstract insight divorced from the physical realities of measurement, nor is it just technologies in search of solutions. You cannot do science with bad technologies and bad methodologies.

Today, we realize there is much greater biological complexity than anybody thought possible 30 years ago. Back then, for example, researchers at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) looked for the magic bullet that would hit the one, two, or three molecular targets of cancer and cure it. That is not happening because of the complexity we've uncovered.

The goal now is to transform health and medicine through discovery.

Cures Depend on Public Access to Information

Understanding biological complexity and how it orchestrates normal development as well as disease is fundamentally where we are in science today. Because of the explosion in the amount of data young scientists need to master, their experiments will be much more quantitative and multidimensional.

Consequently, they will need to work together, across disciplines, to develop common standards to facilitate the exchange of data. At the same time, it will be critical to maintain open public access to scientific information; that's fundamental. Not having open access will delay cures. So we need to emphasize that knowledge must be accumulated across laboratories and around the world.

Manhattan Project Approach Doesn't Work

Everyone likes NIH to use the top-down, Manhattan Project approach that says, "We have all the wisdom, the microscopes, and genomics we need, so let's put it all into one great ship that is going to find new islands and continents of knowledge."

This worked in engineering, say, for going to the moon in 1969 because we knew exactly where the moon was and could optimize everything to get there. But it doesn't work in fundamental discovery science. Having the all-knowing professors, managers, leaders, and authorities come up with the best and only way leads to—the Titanic!

Follow Columbus

I prefer the Christopher Columbus discovery model. Like Columbus and the known world in 1492, everyone today at the edge of science is in the dark. Success depends more on how the problems are defined, rather than on what solutions are reached. When Columbus went to Queen Isabella, he didn't ask for the moon. He just said he thought he had a new way of going to India and wanted a couple of ships to get there. Similarly, the scientific investigator should say, "I have an idea. Could you fund me even if I don't know if I can get there?"

Like Columbus, the researcher might miss India—but hit upon a whole new world of potential knowledge to exploit.

No "One-Size-Fits-All" Scientist

In every scientific exploration, there is not a one-size-fits-all scientist. Some of us have a nose for discovery, and are the pioneers. Others explore lands already visited but uncover new discoveries through a team approach. Still others become the "early settlers." They know the milestones, can sequence DNA, understand where the genes are going to be, and come to know that piece of a genome to an unprecedented level.

So there are different ways of advancing knowledge at different levels, and one is not more meritorious than the other. It would be a mistake to believe the only way to be "somebody" is by being a pioneer.

Leave a Little Bit of Chance … to Chance

We need to leave a little bit of chance to chance. The best way to guarantee failure is to work very hard to assure success. You can't know it all in advance; knowing everything is not good when it comes to generating new insights and making unique, new contributions.

In 1945, when asked by President Roosevelt to devise a way for American science to continue contributing to society as it had during the war, Vannevar Bush, the founder of modern American science, said, "We think it very important that circumstances be such that there be no such ceilings, other than ability itself, to intellectual ambition; that every boy and girl shall know that, if he shows that he has what it takes, the sky is the limit."

To me, this is probably the best scientific policy ever put forward.

The greatest risk in science is to stop taking risks. When you take risks, you gain new perspectives.

Don't Fear Bad Ideas

Over my career, I have found the best way to never have a good idea is to never have a bad one. Scientists will tell you how many bad ideas they've had that led them to one good one. It's easy to discard bad ideas, not so easy to create good ones.

The greatest risk in science is to stop taking risks. When you take risks, you gain new perspectives. When I ask other scientists, they agree the greatest professional moment is to gain a totally new scientific insight, which no one else has had before, and the excitement of being able to share it with the rest of humanity.

This is the fundamental joy of science.

Fall 2007 Issue: Volume 2 Number 4 Pages 2 - 3