A while ago, I mentioned my trip to Toronto. I’d like to expand on it here.
The International Society for Stem Cell Research 9th Annual Meeting was the first major meeting I’ve attended since going to work my company. I’d attended several other, smaller meetings (StemCONN2011, 2010 New Jersey Stem Cell Symposium, AACR Colorectal Cancer Conference), but nothing as long, large, distant, and expensive as ISSCR.
I was kind of struck by how different it felt to be attending as an industry professional as opposed to an academic post-doc/grad student. Instead of sharing data, I was gathering it; instead of free and easy conversation, I was watching what I said.
In the past it was always up to me what I wanted to share about my research, how much I could share in conversation with other scientists. In the past I’ve always presented, either a poster or a talk. That meant meetings were as much about learning about other people’s work as it was getting valuable feedback on my own. However, at ISSCR I didn’t present at all. I was basically just on a fact finding mission- trying to gather enough insights, unpublished results, protocols, etc. to make my trip worthwhile to the company. I think I accomplished that, but I felt guilty.
Attending ISSCR as a company employee who wasn’t at liberty to divulge details of her project, I felt selfish. I think I did provide other scientists with some useful feedback, but I couldn’t really communicate freely. It was also very hard to talk with poster presenters and really, REALLY want to ask them a specific question about my own work, but I couldn’t. I work for a company, and revealing our potential drug targets could hurt the business and put me out of job. So I had to find other ways to ask my questions and ways to deflect any/all direct inquiries regarding mine.
I am torn about keeping scientific secrets- how it seems to inhibit progress and the free and open communication of science. Ideally, everyone would share freely- no concern for credit, publication records, pantents, etc. However, even in academia, secrets are kept to ensure a lab isn’t scooped, gets to publish first, etc. In industry the stakes, in some ways, are higher. Crucial pieces of information validating, or invalidating, a target being pursued by multiple companies could mean saving/losing months or years of time, and millions of dollars invested in getting a drug to market. If we all worked together, could we move things along faster? Probably, but only if we had unlimited resources ($$), which nobody does. Public sources don’t have the money to invest in research that companies do. However, to get that money, companies have to make a product and give their investors a return on their money. Until a public entity (the government, a philanthropic foundation, etc. ) starts funding research and development on a scale like biotech and pharma companies- our current paradigm is the best we can do.
So, I went to Toronto. I attended ISSCR. I think I got enough out of it to justify the trip. Truth be told- I didn’t enjoy it as much as I have conferences in the past. It stunk not getting to present my own work and get feedback on it. It stunk not being able to talk freely with others. I felt selfish. I hope it won’t always be this way. My company routinely sends people to conferences to present their work. My company encourages publications in peer-reviewed journals. My company participates (and makes no profit) from public endeavors to make expensive and time consuming reagents available to the public. I hope in the next couple of years my project will be far enough along (ie patented, IND filed, etc.) that I can go to meetings and share more freely and welcome feedback on my work.