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NIH deputy director addresses challenges, rewards of scientific pursuits

Dr. Lawrence Tabak during his Research Day lecture.

Ann Arbor, Mich., Feb. 22, 2018 -- Funding scientific research all around the world is a complex enterprise for the National Institutes of Health, but good science is based on a much simpler concept -- the individual researcher applying rigorous standards while logging countless hours at the lab bench and computer screen.

That continual quest for new knowledge was a theme that Dr. Lawrence Tabak, the principal deputy director of the NIH, returned to repeatedly during two presentations Wednesday at the University of Michigan. Tabak was the keynote speaker at the School of Dentistry's annual Research Day (see related story here) and he also talked about biomedical research and public policy at a second appearance on campus.

During his keynote address that opened Research Day, Tabak gave dental school students, faculty and staff a primer on his own scientific research specialty related to the structure, biosynthesis and function of glycoproteins. So-called "sugar-coated molecules" form a protective blanket that coats mucosal surfaces of the mouth, respiratory areas and other parts of the body, warding off viruses and bacteria. Research into the microbiology of glycoproteins has taken decades, but each new step of understanding provides valuable information that can help battle cancer and various metabolic diseases.

Scientific research related to human health is a rewarding puzzle, Tabak said. "It's really about passion," he said. "You can't go into science without an insane curiosity and an insane desire to solve the puzzle. And so, what I tell young people is, don't do a project because you are told to do it; do it because it excites you. You can't wait to get up in the morning to get into the lab to start doing things."

He shared some of his best advice for students and young researchers, gleaned from his many years of research and more recently as an administrator at NIH, including his former position as head of the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. Among his suggestions: Over-report failure; under-report success. Do not reinvent the wheel; seek out expert advice. Know what good is and aim for it. Don't be afraid to fail; if you haven't failed once, you haven't tried hard enough. Mentors are extremely important and come in many forms - old, young, peers, even subordinates. You do not have to be the smartest person in the room to succeed. Be a mensch, or good person, who offers to help others with no expected return.

"If you all do that with one another, in science particularly, you will go a long, long way," he said.

In an earlier address, at Palmer Commons, Tabak gave a wide-ranging review of projects and priorities at NIH. It's important to understand the two-fold mission of the federal agency, he said, which is officially "to seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life and reduce illness and disability." A more informal description is "unraveling life's mysteries through basic research and translating discovery into health," he said.

Because NIH relies on government funding, it works closely with Congress and the President. Policy-makers often overlook the basic scientific research that is the foundation of NIH and want the agency to go directly to the second-half of the mission, asking "Where's the next cure for cancer? Where's the next cure for Parkinson's? What are you going to do about the opioid crisis? And everything in between."

"The trick is finding the right balance because often basic discovery can take 10, 20, 30 or 40 years before you realize the promise of that discovery," Tabak said. "Very often the discovery is made and no one had any idea what it was actually going to lead to. You have to be patient, you have to have faith in the overall system that you will get there eventually."

Tabak urged both veteran and younger researchers attending the presentation to continually adhere to the highest scientific standards to ensure that outcomes are based on sound principles and robust research. That's particularly important in an era when funding for scientific research is being questioned more closely and regulators want assurances that projects are yielding important results that translate to better public health. Tabak said NIH is using metrics and "big data" in the grant process to anticipate which research will have the biggest impact, and once a project is complete, more closely evaluate a project's translational value for public health.

Tackling public health emergencies is part of the NIH mission and Tabak used the current national opioid addiction crisis as an example. The agency is developing a three-pronged approach: Improve pain research leading to better pain management that is safe, effective and non-addictive; improve addiction treatment through new and innovative medications and therapies; and develop overdose reversal interventions to reduce mortality.

Tabak also discussed an NIH initiative and pilot programs that seek to increase diversity among researchers around the country. That includes studying how to encourage more young people to choose scientific research as a career, how to have a more diverse pool of grant recipients and how to increase diversity among those in research leadership positions in academia and the private sector.

Public-private partnerships are another method the NIH is using more often to improve scientific inquiry, Tabak said, adding that many academic researchers have long resisted bringing pharmaceutical or other companies into their research process. The reason to do so, Tabak said, is because it works, with examples of success in various autoimmune, Parkinson's Disease and cancer therapies. "For this type of intervention, we think it is very critical to have scientists from pharma sitting side by side with scientists from NIH and academia to ensure that we do things on benchmark, to ensure that we have deliverables, and that we stay to a timeline," Tabak said. "These are all things that are anathema to the typical (academic) scientist, who says, give me the money, leave me alone and I'll get back to you at the end of the research. And I understand that. But this is different, this is something we need to address with some immediacy. This is something we have very defined target goals for and so we think these types of partnerships are crucial."

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The University of Michigan School of Dentistry is one of the nation's leading dental schools engaged in oral health care education, research, patient care and community service.  General dental care clinics and specialty clinics providing advanced treatment enable the school to offer dental services and programs to patients throughout Michigan.  Classroom and clinic instruction prepare future dentists, dental specialists, and dental hygienists for practice in private offices, hospitals, academia and public agencies.  Research seeks to discover and apply new knowledge that can help patients worldwide.  For more information about the School of Dentistry, visit us on the Web at: www.dent.umich.edu.  Contact: Lynn Monson, associate director of communications, at dentistry.communications@umich.edu, or (734) 615-1971.