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Program Commentary: a protein structure initiative example

Posted by LushingtonTechWriter on October 4, 2013 at 11:15 AM

A big part of science is figuring out where the money is going to come from and what that money is looking for.  Decisions by those holding the purse strings are often made by non-experts who condense expert sentiments down into layman-accessible arguments that can sway public or corporate favor.  So what scientists write and say about desirable scientific opportunities, if done artfully and persuasively, become self-fulfilling.  I.e., posting a thought provoking wish-list to the world can sometimes get those wishes granted.

Anyway, in response to https://www.researchgate.net/post/What_impact_will_the_end_of_the_NIGMS_Protein_Structure_Initiative_Centers_have_on_structural_biology_and_how_should_we_go_forward?" target="_blank" rel="nofollow">news that the NIH Protein Structures Initiative is ending, I have composed my thoughts and and sending them out into the ether:

Part of the process (that must surely already be the subject of dialogues between the program office and key PIs) is a post mortem analysis not just of program high points and criticisms, but also of the question of what key objectives are being left on the table. That discussion will certainly inform the road ahead and may deliver the basis for new programs once the funding environment becomes a little healthier.


Somewhat related to this discussion is an earlier exchange that at least one of your current question followers (Hi Margaret!) contributed meaningful points towards:


https://www.researchgate.net/post/Has_the_NIGMS_Protein_Structure_Initiative_de-emphasized_new_fold_discovery" target="_blank" rel="nofollow">https://www.researchgate.net/post/Has_the_NIGMS_Protein_Structure_Initiative_de-emphasized_new_fold_discovery


The discussion ran the course of how original intent progressed on toward pragmatic refocusing and perhaps echoes some of the same sentiments which informed the decision to discontinue the PSI and revert the funding to a more general pool. Perhaps I can characterize the evolution in oversimplified, but hopefully still apt terms: the program began with a mission of broadening general biological understanding and analytical capability, but gradually began to take on an increasingly targeted biomedical bent that became difficult to distinguish from R01 style research. This is hardly unusual; it certainly also happened in the Molecular Libraries Initiative, and may be one of the most common outcomes of a program of this nature.


But to your question of how structural biologists should move forward? There are probably several areas of possibly revolutionary impact that are emerging, but the one that is nearest to my heart is new target discovery and characterization. The economics of big pharma practically enslaves the industry to easy, well-established targets and leaves novel target elucidation and validation to academia and small speculative biotechs. A federal program targeting collaboration of diagnostic clinicians, physiologists, molecular biologists, structural biologists and informaticians aimed at highly speculative, evidence-based target rationalization / characterization could produce an informational gold mine from which many next generation medical discoveries could emerge.

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