Making science (part VII): On the utility of science

In a recent interview for the podcast series of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, Ira Mellman of Genentech expressed his views on the utility of science practiced at academic institutions. After an academic career at Rockefeller and Yale University, Mellman joined Genentech in 2007 where he is Vice President of Research Oncology. Mellman is a member of the National Academy of Sciences since 2011. The interview is about current challenges in the field of cancer immunotherapy. But things get a bit more controversial at the end. Scroll the audio featured below to -0:35 and you’ll hear this:

PNAS: “I asked Mellman whether his move from academia to industry has brought him closer to his goal of practicing people-centered science.”

Mellman: “It gives one a deep feeling of satisfaction that you’ve actually done science that’s meaningful to people’s lives – and not just interesting, which is what one normally does in the academic realm.  You can be a terrific success if you are serially interesting, and it doesn’t really matter if you’re particularly useful. Here you really have to be both.”

So there you have it. At academia, it does not matter if you are useful or not.

I have to respectfully disagree with Mellman. First of all, I am yet to find an academic scientist who does not care whether his/her discoveries have an impact on people’s lives. Second, the practical consequences of all research are always of great importance at academic institutions, particularly in biomedicine. Clinical utility of biomedical research is always looming in the guidelines of all research grants. There is no interesting biomedical research –or successful biomedical scientists for that matter— that are not useful. Coming from Yale and Rockefeller, Mellman should know this very well.

But one point of greater philosophical interest is the general concept of “usefulness” in basic research. What does Mellman mean by being useful? Intriguingly, both of the research programmes mentioned as examples of people-centered  science in the interview are rooted in basic discoveries made at academic institutions. Were those original discoveries not useful? Had they never been made, there would not be any “people-centered science” for Mellman. Two good quotes come to mind here as well:

“…the shortest path to medical breakthroughs may not come from a direct attack against a specific disease. Critical medical insights frequently arise from attempts to understand fundamental mechanisms in organisms that are much easier to study than humans”  — Bruce Alberts.

“Translational research is meaningless without something to translate.” “The idea that tens of thousands of scientists are sitting on secret knowledge that could be applied today, if only they were provided with the simple tools and incentives that are needed to create a start-up company, is simply absurd” — Howy Jacobs.

The utility of basic discoveries is difficult to predict and Mellman has got himself into slippery territory here. Sadly, more than a serious statement about utility in science, Mellman would simply seem to be justifying himself in front of his academic peers.

UPDATE August 17 2013: Must-read Editorials by Huda Zoghbi and Marc Kirschner in Science magazine on this topic.