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In the 2006 Presidential Address, Omenn Urges Action on “Grand Challenges”
ST. LOUIS — Twenty years ago, when the Human Genome Project was first proposed, it was ridiculed even by many accomplished scientists. In some quarters, recalls AAAS President Gilbert S. Omenn, the early version of the project “was denounced as a scheme for unemployed bomb makers.”
Today, all 22,000 genes in human DNA have been mapped and sequenced, opening up a virtual universe of new study and the possibility for health benefits that were once unimaginable. That success should serve as a stimulus for the progress and benefits that can be achieved when researchers seek to solve the most difficult challenges in their fields, Omenn said in his Presidential Address to the AAAS Annual Meeting Thursday night.
“We should dare to study hard problems,” Omenn urged the audience. “I hope we can entice our political leaders, regionally and nationally, to call upon the scientific community to step up on these and other grand challenges.” [Read the full text of Omenn's address in PDF format here. Powerpoint slides are here (25.6 MB).]
The theme of the 172nd Annual Meeting is “Grand Challenges, Great Opportunities,” and in his hour-long address, Omenn detailed some of the most compelling challenges facing humanity across a range of fields — hunger and infectious diseases, environment and sustainability, systems biology and the molecular underpinning of life, natural disasters, risk assessment and mathematics, among others.
Historically, he said, there is a common theme to scientific exploration of these and other fields. At crucial junctures, researchers believe they’ve tracked knowledge and understanding to a final conclusion. But then, an unexpected breakthrough can explode that confidence and open up new realms of knowledge, technology and uncertainty.
AAAS Chair Shirley Ann Jackson, Omenn’s predecessor as president, introduced him with a glowing tribute to his work and accomplishments, calling him “a man who has excelled at all levels of science, research, education, public policy and leadership.” She cited his dedication to advancing the public’s understanding of science, translating scientific advances into public policy, and helping to nurture a new generation of leaders in science, health and technology.
Omenn currently serves as a professor of internal medicine, human genetics and public health at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Over the course of his career, he has bridged the gaps between science, medicine, public policy, business and education.
Omenn's research interests include genetics, cancer proteomics, risk analysis, and health policy. He is the author of 410 research papers and scientific reviews and author or editor of 17 books. He is a member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Association of American Physicians and the American College of Physicians. He chaired the presidential/congressional Commission on Risk Assessment and Risk Management (the "Omenn Commission"), served on the National Commission on the Environment and has worked in high-impact policy positions under both Republicans and Democrats.
Omenn graduated from Harvard Medical School and trained at Massachusetts General Hospital. From 1969-1974, he did research in and taught medical genetics at the University of Washington in Seattle. In 1973-74, during the administrations of Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, he was a White House Fellow at the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission; since then, he has recruited numerous candidates for the fellowship program and mentored many of those who were selected.
He served as a deputy to President Jimmy Carter's science and technology adviser, Frank Press, and later as an associate director of the Office of Management and Budget from 1977-81. He was the first Science and Public Policy Fellow at The Brookings Institution, then served as dean of the School of Public Health and professor of medicine and environmental health at the University of Washington. In 1997 he took the post of executive vice president for medical affairs and chief executive officer of the University of Michigan Health System. He resumed his faculty role at Michigan in 2002 and currently leads the international Plasma Proteome Project.
Early in his address Thursday night, Omenn said he was inspired by a 1968 quote from Robert Kennedy: “Some people see things as they are and ask: Why? I dream things as they never were and ask: Why not?” That statement served as a foundation as he roamed across disciplines to identify some of the most perilous and most promising problems of our time.
Drawing on his own work as director of the international Plasma Proteome Project, he said that to understand how genes work in cells, scientists must seek the “holy grail” of understanding effector molecules.
Exploring the Human Plasma Proteome “is a many-fold more daunting challenge than sequencing the genome, even though proteomics gets a head start from the gene sequence databases and mass spectrometry and robotic microarray technologies,” Omenn said.
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He cited his work with the National Center for Integrative Biomedical Informatics at the University of Michigan, which has brought many collaborators across an array of disciplines nationwide. “We are investigating how prostate cancers metastasize, how childhood diabetes leads to organ damage in nerves and kidneys, and whether we can discern subgroups of patients and families with adult-onset diabetes and with bipolar disease through genetic, metabolic and clinical analyses and computational modeling of the findings,” he explained. “We are confident that such knowledge will enhance the identification of specific targets and combinations of targets for development of new drugs, with much enhance efficacy and much less toxicity for patients.”
In the fields of environment and sustainability, Omenn listed a number of challenges, including the separation, sequestration and utilization of carbon dioxide; the development of renewable fuel sources and “green chemicals” to replace harmful solvents; and a life-cycle analysis of chemicals and their uses.
Omenn recounted how more than 30 years ago, he was a White House Fellow assigned as a staff member to the Atomic Energy Commission for the report called “Our Nation’s Energy Future.” It called for advances in efficiency of burning fuels, more extensive recovery of oil and gas from existing fields, acceptable disposal of nuclear waste and long-term commitment to alternative sources ranging from wind to nuclear fission.
“Regrettably,” he told the audience, “this agenda has remained fresh for three decades. It is past time to dedicate sustained effort. And the urgency for energy security is greater than ever. Just examine the world map for the locations of sources of most of our imported oil.”
He called for exploring the role of public communication in risk management. And citing the “seemingly inevitable” evolution of Avian flu into a virus more dangerous to humans, he said questions of what cause the virus to mutate and the need to swiftly produce specific vaccines pose further important challenges.
Those efforts could take years. But in the meantime, Omenn said, the number of hospital beds has been reduced to dangerously low levels. In the event of a flu pandemic, the shortage of hospital beds could be “catastrophic,” he said.
“It’s a really big hazard, with low probability and uncertain timing,” he said, “…like living near the site where there could be a giant earthquake.”
He cited a number of recent reports on the need to renew the United States’ culture of innovation, including “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” by the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine. And he welcomed recent initiatives by President George W. Bush and members of the U.S. Congress to encourage innovation, but pledged that AAAS would monitor the federal budget process this year to assess whether the aspirations are matched by sufficient funding.
Omenn also said that scientists face a challenge in forging constructive relations with a public that at times seems hostile to science and the scientific mindset. For example, he cited the latest U.S. episode — one in a long-running conflict — over the accepatance of evolution science and the teaching of evolution in schools.
The argument is characterized by misunderstanding and “diversionary tactics” — the misunderstanding of the word “theory” by evolution opponents, for example. But at the same time, Omenn said, the controversy offers an opportunity. The December 2005 decision by U.S. District Court Judge John E. Jones III in Kitzmiller et al vs. the Dover School District et al was “splendid,” he said, a compelling argument on the nature of science.
“We have had some success in turning the attacks on the teaching of evolution to our advantage,” he said. “It has given us a chance to teach about the scientific way of thinking and evaluating evidence that would strengthen our democracy.”
Edward W. Lempinen
17 February 2006