Money, money, money and medical innovation

"Bad news, [medical innovation] takes money," said Dick Gephardt, delivering the opening remarks at Friday's Best and Brightest Forum on Medical Innovation. But when it comes to investing in technological advances and research, says Gephardt, there is nothing that we can do with our money that will create a greater return.

And that was the theme throughout the event held at the Newseum Knight Conference Center, which included a keynote by the newest Dem. on the Hill, Sen. Arlen Specter. Two panels rounded out the event: The Political Landscape and Advocating for Sustained U.S. Leadership in Medical Innovation was moderated by political consultant and CNN political contributor, Paul Begala, and included Gephardt, PhRMA Chief Billy Tauzin and Mary Woolley, President of Research!America; Led Michelle McMurry, Aspen Institute Director of Health, Biomedical, Science and Society Policy Program, the second panel also featured former director of the National Science Foundation, Rita Colwell, Texas A&M Vice Chancellor for Research, Brett P. Giroir and Alicia Loffler, Director and Clinical Professor of Biotechnology at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management.

Panelists contended that medical innovation will save on healthcare costs, help the economy, create jobs, contribute to our nation's emotional well-being by finding treatments for diseases we fear, and even make workers more productive by treating their sick family and friends. "This is no longer a moral issue," said Tauzin, "this is an economic issue." But, according to Tauzin, the U.S. is ranked sixth worldwide in medical innovation, and falling. And that's why we have to attach urgency to the question of how to bring about innovations in the medical industry, Gephardt added.

No doubt, innovation requires adequate funding. But the NIH's budget has been stagnate at $30 billion for the past 8 years, and next year's budget increase may be only a single digit percentage of that. The FDA is also underfunded, preventing the agency from implementing advanced technology and other practices that would make it more efficient. And then there's the issue of venture capital. In a few words, "venture capitalists aren't very venturesome," said Colwell. "They want returns next year."

That being said, the chasm between basic research and the patient bedside won't be fixed with just money. Here are a few other issues that were discussed at the meeting.

Communication: Of course innovation takes money. But first, it's important to educate both the public and lawmakers. I've heard over and over at nearly every event I've attended that researchers just aren't lobbying and informing people about the importance of their work as they should. Woolley was adamant about the need for scientists to put a face on their research. Fewer than 10 percent of of the population can name a scientist and if they are able to, most will name a deceased scientist, she explained. "It's the scientists' job... This is doable without a lot of money being spent." Not only that, but companies can do more to call attention to the important work being done by offering awards or hosting ceremonies to honor to their researchers--and the same goes for President Obama.

Flexibility: Loffler raised the issue of restrictions being placed on the relationship between industry and doctors. Collaboration is key to innovation; restrictions meant to help patients may in the end hurt them if it stifles innovation. Researchers also need to be allowed some flexibility in their work. That means providing them with the funding and space to pursue what interests them rather than just the prospective money-makers, said Giroir.

Education: When you're ranked sixth in the world and falling, education is obviously a big factor. And that's at all levels. Beyond informing the public about science, the U.S. is failing at math and science education--as well as preparing students in higher education for the business of medical innovation. Panelists reminisced about the days of Sputnik, when kids around the nation knew all the astronauts and aspired to be scientists or engineers... and how those days are over. Many of the panelists spoke on the need for a better relationship between the public and private sector to cultivate scientists, especially young scientists. Fellowships and professionalizing the Master of Science were among the solutions discussed.

There's obviously much more to this. What do you think? Let us know.