An Important Innovation PSA to Biomedical Researchers and Leaders: Stay Calm, Innovate, and Make It Relevant!

Lately, there are a lot of academic leaders including university presidents, medical school deans, department chairs, and many others crying out in anguish over possible cuts in federal funding for medical research and/or infrastructure. Federal funding from sources like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are the lifeblood of medical research at our great universities and academic medical centers (AMC). At Michigan, we are no exception. We are fortunate to be the recipients of a lot a federal research funding and big cuts would pose significant challenges.

However, while we all have our heads on fire about this in our bubble we call academia, I don’t hear any similar outcry from the public. The public generally knows that AMCs provide great care, but they don’t see the research engine running under the hood. Now by the “public” I mean Mr. and Mrs. Middle America tax-payer living in urban, suburban, and rural America. How do I know this and what makes me such a reliable source? Well, my family members and friends span this demographic. They are teachers, accountants, farmers, homemakers, etc. Some are physicians and nurses practicing in community hospitals. They live in big cities, small cities, East Coast, West Coast, Gulf Coast, North Coast and everywhere in between. I even know a cowboy or two.

They NEVER ask me if I am funded by the NIH or what I think about budget cuts to the NIH. They never ask me how highly ranked the University of Michigan is in NIH funding. They probably don’t even know what the NIH is, or for that matter, what translational research, clinical research, or basic science research is. I know when I have tried to define or explain these things to them they start to drift off and excuse themselves to make a phone call, take out the garbage, or walk the dog (even when they don’t even have a dog).

What they do ask me, and can’t get enough of, is what my latest innovation or company is and what disease will it help cure or improve. Mom or Dad will call and say, “How are things, son, how are the kids, and what’s the latest with that thing-a-ma-jig you were making to stop life-threatening hemorrhage?” A brother or friend calls, “Hey dude, what did you think of the game last night and when can I invest in your company to treat those million cases of sepsis a year?”

So while I REALLY don’t want cuts to various federal research budgets, I have to be honest: I am not very sympathetic to our cause because, based on my skills as a pollster (as evidenced above), we are not very good at messaging why our research MATTERS to those who are paying for us to do all that research (the ordinary citizen and taxpayer).

Let me be just a little more direct: We stink at the messaging! Even if you are an alumnus from Michigan, you are likely to know more about our football team (especially after this year’s Michigan State game) than you are that we invented the Electrocardiogram, Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation, FluMist, or a recent breakthrough treatment for Gaucher disease, as well as the plethora of technologies we are working on in cancer, neurodegenerative disease, child health, critical care, and on and on and on. Now at U-M, we regularly celebrate these achievements and pat ourselves on the back frequently (I sometimes get a little sore from doing this), however, this doesn’t help in our bigger challenge.

So, back to the bemoaning of budget cuts and policy changes. It’s our fault. Our message has been “lost in translation.” We are fighting a battle of relevancy. If the public clearly understood what we do and what the consequences of decreased funding would be, those with the purse strings would have serious second, third, and 1010 thoughts about cutting research budgets. Again, by the public, I don’t mean Congress (although that would help). We answer to the public (our current and future patients who send money to the government in the form of taxes), period!

So, how do we message better? OK, bias alert, as the Innovation guy, I’m going to say innovation and not only innovation, but also entrepreneurship and commercialization, which, by the way, creates jobs outside the bubble. A very powerful way to connect the public with our great science and the battles against disease that we are desperately engaged in is through the message of innovation and entrepreneurship. The most powerful way to connect the public with our great research is to make the output of that research directly relevant to them. As I pointed out earlier, this is how those outside my academic bubble connect to what I do. FFMI is now partnering around the University to develop programming and messaging that connects us to the community and teaches our community that innovation and entrepreneurship is a natural and even expected academic behavior.

Now I can hear the groan of the Rembrandt basic science research masters: “Not so fast, sonny– basic science research can’t be expected to…blah, blah, blah.” If you are all about basic research, fantastic, but there is a translational innovation and potential entrepreneurship story you can, should, and must tell about your work to others outside the bubble. Working on a new cellular pathway or signaling system? The public needs to know what breakthrough it might produce (a new diagnostic, new therapeutic, new diet, etc.). They would be fascinated to learn about the journey, which includes the failures, but mostly about the potential to produce something meaningful for them! So, sprinkle this on your organic yogurt or oatmeal and think about it. Think about what if we messaged in this way all the time to the public, from every researcher (innovator) in every AMC. If we did, we might not be in the position we are in in justifying why cuts or re-engineering of budgets are not in the best interests of the public. Right now, our status quo messaging is not resonating with the public!

In fact, if we message differently, we will be in a better position to negotiate federal research policy or programs in our favor. If we message what we do – our impact – from an innovation and entrepreneurship perspective, we would then be asking, “What are the consequences of any new policy or decision on innovation?” In other words, how difficult will ill-informed decisions made by good-meaning bureaucrats or even public advocacy groups have on our ability to innovate and commercialize products? Heck, when put in that way, both the public and industry would become our informed partners. Right now, our status quo messaging is not resonating with the public!

As I mentioned in my first blog, while defense may win championships in football, it won’t win diddly squat in fighting disease. We need relentless offense. The defense we are up against is disease. What we don’t need opposing us is us. Better messaging and communications strategies, which help the communities we serve view what we do through the lens of innovation and entrepreneurship, will go a long way in developing the clear 20:20 vision we need to secure essential stability in research funding and sound research policy. Like any market, our market hates uncertainty.

We’ll talk in future blogs regarding other specific things we should consider changing in federal programming that could result in potentially disruptive but extremely impactful changes that would further our cause and bring both the public and industry to our sides as team members in the battle against disease and suffering. Let’s quit complaining, stay calm, keep innovating, and spread the message of relevance early and often!


October 20, 2017

2 responses on "An Important Innovation PSA to Biomedical Researchers and Leaders: Stay Calm, Innovate, and Make It Relevant!"

  1. This is very true. I had this conversation with my father in law. He asked how my thing-a-ma-jig was coming along and if I got that money from the government. I told him my grant was scored in the funding range, but is pending the final budget for this year. We discussed how the proposed budget cuts from the president and Congress (which he supports and voted for) would result in over a million dollar loss to the development of this tech. He was shocked, disappointed, and quite surprised that our progress could be hurt so dramatically by cuts to the federal budget. We must do a better job making people understand the consequences of cuts.

  2. Elegantly stated! We definitely need to focus on refining our communication tools!

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