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The Leonardo paradox

Science has long used the singular genius model. Is this interfering with translating bio-research into something useful?

This week, I spent two days at the University of Pennsylvania, at a meeting about translational medicine–defined as the translation of pure research into useful treatments for people.

Prominent speakers from Europe and the U.S. lamented the gap between the two, and why it seems so difficult to connect the dots between lab bench and bedside. Another recurrent theme at the meeting–an international symposium sponsored by Penn’s Institute for Translational Medicine and Therapeutics–was a life-science research culture that tends to favor individual genius more than teams of experts from wide-ranging fields, which translation often requires. Call it the Leonardo (da Vinci) paradox.

Peter Rigby of the Institute of Cancer Research in London made the point that academic career progression and tenure is focused on individual achievement while “translation is a team game”. You need a range of scientists, physicians, technicians, and experts in bioinformatics working on projects that may not end up with a singular “eureka” moment of discovery, he explained; translational medicine is about a series of steps and outcomes that collectively benefit patients–usually after years of tedious work running clinical trials and validation protocols that fail as often as they succeed.

Rigby noted that particle physicists have dealt with the need for teams by apportioning credit among dozens or even hundreds of authors on journal papers. “How do you evaluate people on teams for tenure?” he asked “It’s a matter of figuring out who does what in translational projects.”

That’s easier said than done. Singular genius is still the basis for the biggest prize in science, the Nobel–though in 2007, the Nobel Peace Prize was given to the 2000 climate scientists that made up the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Perhaps this is a portent of change. Clearly, a new regime is needed that considers the teams that often make a new test, drug or device possible, and recognizes them as highly as a brilliant new scientific discovery.

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