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Celebrating the pursuit of scientific innovation

We should all be thankful to Vannevar Bush, one of the true titans of science in the 20th century.

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Seventy-five years ago, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt penned a letter to his director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, Dr. Vannevar Bush. Basking in the recent glory of the D-Day invasion, exhibiting an innovative mix of confidence and curiosity, the ailing president asked Bush to explore an idea. On the president’s mind was whether the formula that worked so well in bringing industry, academia, and the government together to produce unprecedented military success during World War II could be applied to life sciences research in order to accelerate the development of cures for deadly diseases. A different war with a different enemy, one fought on the endless battlefield of human biology; but a war nonetheless, with millions of American casualties and counting.

During the world war, the president saw firsthand the value created through coordination and team play. He understood that when it came to harnessing the innovative power generated by combining the symbiotic constituencies of academia and industry with a prudent dose of government spending, the whole far exceeded the sum of its parts. The historical significance of FDR’s letter and its intriguing query would be unknown in 1944. Time would prove differently, as Bush’s epic response would set the wheels in motion to create what we have come to know as modern-day translational research, a concept commonly referred to as laboratory bench-to-patient bedside.


FDR threw down the gauntlet with these beautiful inspirational words contained in his communication to Bush: “New frontiers of the mind are before us, and if they are pioneered with the same vision, boldness, and drive with which we have waged this war, we can create a fuller and more fruitful employment, and a fuller and more fruitful life.”

Sadly, the 32nd president, serving in an unprecedented third term, would not live to see Bush’s answer, which would arrive nine months later in the form of “Science, The Endless Frontier,” his magnum opus that both defined and created the model for translational research. Had Roosevelt read the important work, he surely would have felt a deep sense of gratitude and accomplishment.


Bush’s genius formula was remarkably straightforward, as is the case with most great ideas. He advocated for a linear relationship between the three constituencies that play a major part in life sciences innovation: academia, industry, and the government. He believed that basic research, conducted primarily at academic medical research institutions, served as the engine for discovery and should be pursued for the pure goal of advancing scientific knowledge. Bush maintained that basic research was the pacemaker of technological progress, systematically handing batons to industry, who would then would translate the technology. Government would fund basic research and industry would invest in the commercialization phase.

Analogous to the biotech industry, basic research is critical to the drug development process and plays a vital early role in the understanding of human biology, connecting up gene mutation and disease, and finding targets and pathways. This painstaking process takes time and money, loads of both. Consensus views hold that it takes 10 to15 years to develop a drug, double that if you add in the time spent on basic research. Without funding for this critical stage, bottlenecks in translational research surface, innovation slows, and patients suffer.

Naysayers are quick to claim that nothing comes out of academia. Tell that to Nobel Laureate Dr. James Allison, who along with two other scientists, discovered, at the turn of the century after a decade-plus of work in his University of California, Berkeley, lab, the cell-surface receptor CTLA-4 that acts to restrict T-cell responses. Allison showed that antibody blockade of CTLA-4 increased the body’s immune response and could actually shrink cancerous tumors. Merck and Bristol Myers Squibb, among others, grabbed the baton and proceeded to invest significant sums of money attempting to commercialize the technology, which led to a new class of therapeutics called immune checkpoint inhibitors and thence to multiple breakthrough cancer drugs, including blockbusters Kytruda and Opdivo.


If Bush were alive today, he would stand in awe of Allison and marvel at how far we have come. His model of funding basic scientific medical research has provided the engine of discovery for once unimaginable breakthroughs that have changed people’s lives. But he would be equally concerned at two trends that have surfaced over the past several decades.

Firstly, despite American supremacy in global life science research and development and seemingly limitless opportunities resulting from the Human Genome Project, policy makers’ willingness to fund early-stage medical research has shrunk. As a result of Bush’s efforts, the National Institutes of Health spent a record $37 billion on medical research in 2018. This sounds like a lot of money, and it is, except for when you compare it with the United States GDP, which stands at a staggering $20 trillion. NIH support for medical research now stands at an alarmingly low level of 0.18 percent of GDP. Even worse, NIH support of medical research represents less than a penny out of every dollar spent from the federal government’s jaw-dropping $4 trillion annual budget. It is difficult to fathom a better investment for the federal government to make than in science and technology.


Secondly, Bush would be disappointed at how far academia and industry have drifted apart. These institutions and their respective career paths have been, and will always be different, thereby attracting contrasting people with varying skill sets. This is a good thing, to a point. But a variety of factors have worked gradually over the decades to widen the gulf between these respective constituencies, to the point where we find ourselves, today, further apart than at any time since Bush launched his initiative. Few, if anyone, believe this is the optimal environment for efficient innovation, while many think the merger of basic science and business will act to accelerate translational research. Recognizing the value in combining these skills, the Harvard Business School recently launched the interdisciplinary MS/MBA Biotechnology: Life Sciences Joint Degree, hoping to create the next generation of life science leaders.

On the 75th anniversary of this seminal moment, we should all be thankful to Vannevar Bush, one of the true titans of science in the 20th century. The contributions he made to the advancement of life sciences are still reverberating throughout laboratories and research institutions across this country. Bush planted the seeds which have grown into the early stages of the BioCentury. But if we are to reap the full benefits from the opportunities that lay before us, academia, industry, and the government are going to need to find a more efficient way to work together. The large chasm that has formed between these constituencies is threatening to derail Bush’s formula for success in the pursuit of scientific innovation.


The Allied Forces faced fierce and indefatigable opponents in World War II, but many say cancer, Alzheimer’s, and heart disease are more formidable foes. Unquestionably, we are making enormous advancements in understanding human biology, disease, and developing breakthrough therapies. It is imagining what is possible to achieve, what could be, that makes so many who have dedicated their lives to caring for the sick longingly channel FDR’s dream.

Working in Kendall Square, the epicenter of the biotechnology industry, a locale dubbed the world’s most innovative square mile, I have the distinct privilege to interact with some of the most creative and brilliant scientific minds in the world every day. These enormously talented people are leading a revolution, which at its core, is the spectacular merging of biology and engineering. They are motivated by a deep passion to improve patient lives and an unbridled courage to change the world — for the better.

Like others who came before, these revolutionaries need money. We should give it to them. As prudent funders allocating capital, it is our responsibility; as believers in endless scientific frontiers, it is our moral obligation.

Douglas Eby is a senior fellow at the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School and CEO of Cambridge Science.