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In my last post, I drew our readers’ attention to an excellent article by Giulio Cossu and colleagues on stem cells and regenerative medicine where the authors set out a number of recommendations for the regenerative medicine field. One of those recommendations was surprising (and very welcomed):

“Researchers and others involved in funding, publishing, and communicating stem cell research should integrate some responsibility for public dialogue into their research.”

In its own small way, the Signals blog tries to meet this goal – our bloggers try to bring to the attention of the wider public new developments, potential issues, and recent highlights in the regenerative medicine field. But this is such a small piece of the puzzle considering the magnitude of the wider field and very few of its researchers actually do anything to engage with the public in a meaningful way.

In some ways, it is the most challenging of the Cossu et al. recommendations for the research community since many scientists often have little to no interaction with the public. The idea that a scientist’s work should be practically related to a human health issue, however, is widespread amongst funding agencies and public policy makers so it begs the question of why more interaction does not naturally happen.

I therefore challenge our scientist readers, especially those involved in “medical” research, to ask themselves a difficult question: “If your work was successful from a scientific point of view (e.g., cell type A did job B), but was completely impractical from a clinical point of view, is it worth doing? Would you fund your own project if you were interested in advancing human health?”

My fear is that those undertaking more applied medical research fail to ask this question regularly and often end up undertaking projects that neither answer a practical, clinically relevant question nor advance our understanding of biology.  Make no mistake, I am a strong proponent of funding research into fundamental biological insights into our bodies and how they work – it should be well funded.

induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) – photo credit Dr. Lise Munsie, CCRM

That said, something I have noticed in my own field of stem cells and regenerative medicine is that research projects are often quite far removed from the original biological system (e.g., induced pluripotent stem cells) and while they could, in theory, have a very strong clinical goal attached to them, they might lack (completely sometimes!) an actual path to the clinic – and then you really have to start asking, “why are we funding this?”

Research whose sole intention is about optimizing cellular therapies or production of cell products really requires a deep and thoughtful look at the target population it hopes the technology or tool might benefit. The burgeoning fields of “directed differentiation” and “forward programming” from induced pluripotent stem cells are fantastic examples of fields where researchers should be required to address these questions prior to investing their time and money into such endeavours.

While there are some spectacular examples to the contrary, I would wager that the vast majority of basic researchers have rarely, if ever, considered what the actual economic and social need for their research might be. Efforts to engage the public, policymakers, health care practitioners and patients are not particularly easy, but if your mission as a research scientist is to help people get better, you should at least begin to understand who your research might benefit.

At the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute, we are trying to foster a culture change in the way academics approach and evaluate public engagement, and projects have ranged from making a stem cell-themed beer, science comedy nights and building robots to enact cell fate decisions on large play mats. The whole point is to engage the public in meaningful dialogue and sometimes this works best when you start with something other than the science.

And who knows…  you might actually return from such interactions with a little bit of extra enthusiasm for undertaking your research in the first place – and what scientist wouldn’t benefit from a little pick-me-up like that?

 

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David Kent

David Kent

Principal Investigator at University of Cambridge
Dr. David Kent is a Principal Investigator at the University of Cambridge in the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute (http://www.stemcells.cam.ac.uk/research/pis/kent). His laboratory's research focuses on fate choice in single blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David is currently the Stem Cell Institute’s Public Engagement Champion and has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009. He has been writing for Signals since 2010.