Steve's Reflections


In 1999 and 2000, Steve Kirsch outlined his thoughts on a variety of philanthropic and political reform topics. Please select from the list to find those of interest to you.

Reflection #7

Medical research is inefficient

Read current information about the Foundation's work on medical research.

We spend billions of dollars a year on medical research in universities and industry. But contrary to what I used to think, I’ve now learned that those dollars are inefficiently spent. Anyone in the research community will validate this, but it isn’t something that people talk about, or our proud of. Here’s the scoop...

University researchers are no different than companies; they are always trying to compete with each other. So you rarely see university groups working in the same area collaborating. The only collaborations you see are inter-departmental, because there is no competition.

As a result, rather than always building on the research of others, or helping to prove promising ideas, researchers focus on their own unique ideas so they will get the "credit." In fact, it’s often worse; people try to discredit your work. Certainly there is some value in this if the work is legitimately poor. But, if the work is poor but still has a good scientific basis, our researchers should be helping other researchers make new discoveries, rather than criticizing them.

So that’s why researchers working in many fields work so hard to make sure their formulations and protocols are well documented before going public. For example, look what happened to Judah Folkman when he didn’t do this and nobody could replicate his work.

This slows progress because it means people are less likely to publish results sooner.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has realized this and the "center" grants are an attempt to foster cooperation between groups. It’s a move in the right direction, but still is not enough to foster cooperation within a field (as opposed to across fields).

Oddly, the most promising way of creating collaboration is through industry. Since academics don’t see themselves in "competition" with industry, you can have a hub-spoke model where one type is the hub, and the other types are the spokes.

All things considered, the system works pretty well -- better than in any other country in the world. Academics are motivated by fame, glory, and career. Commercial researchers are motivated by profits. Both are highly motivated. But I believe there is an opportunity to do better still with a more collaborative system.

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