Wednesday, December 24, 2014

An IGY for medicine

File:International Geophysical Year in 1957.Japanese sttamp of 10yen.jpgIt's been an interesting first year of blogging, and I want to thank everyone for their helpful input and conversations. It's really been great.

The year 2015 will soon be upon us, bringing with it new opportunities for improving human health across a world fractured with poverty, strife, and war. Robert F Kennedy once said that
There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were, and ask why not.
This strikes me as an appropriate notion for healthcare and medical research. We should ask "why not?" and "what if?" much, much more often.

A little over 50 years ago an event unfolded that provided both hope for peace and a better understanding of our planet. Lasting for 18 months in 1957 and 1958, it was called the International Geophysical Year (IGY). The idea of an IGY is said to have originated in 1950, at a social gathering in James Van Allen's living room. Someone at the gathering opined that, with the recent development of tools like rockets, radar, and computers, a period of coordinated investigation could make a real impact on understanding the geosphere.

The IGY was thus an attempt to coordinate global research on, and measurements of, the earth, oceans, atmosphere, and sun. The accomplishments of the IGY were legion and included the discovery of the Van Allen radiation belts surrounding the earth; the launch of the first artificial satellites; the charting of ocean depths and ocean currents; and groundbreaking studies of the earth's magnetic field. The IGY required -- and successfully achieved -- international cooperation in a time of significant geopolitical tension. It provided a demonstration of what can be achieved when diverse peoples, who share common and coordinated goals, work together with cutting edge technologies.

Why couldn't we adapt the idea of the IGY and have a future International Biomedical Year, where nations apply tools such as supercomputing, machine learning, and genomic sequencing in a coordinated investigation of the ills plaguing human health? The idea would be to plan collaborative and complementary studies in order to accomplish agreed upon, viable steps toward solutions to important problems.

Admittedly, this is a pipe dream, but why not? What if the world's major government and non-government funding organizations closely coordinated their activities on a truly international, focused initiative? Maybe we could cure one or more cancers, or learn how to cut the incidence of heart disease, or finally understand Alzheimer's disease.

Let's try to ask "why not?" and "what if?" more often in 2015. And may you prosper and be well in the coming year.

(image source: Wikipedia)

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