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THE BLACK HOLE

Defining the role of the scientific activist

By JONATHAN THON | APR 28 2014

I was recently invited to give a keynote address at the Human Disease Mapping conference at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland that was fully coordinated by a small group of the college’s PhD students and postdoctoral fellows. The scope was to share my experience and story of my academic career in a period where the global financial and humanitarian crisis is affecting young scientists’ hopes of doing what they love most – science.

Given its length, I have divided the original talk into multiple posts.

To read the previous articles in this series please visit the links below:

Media/Politics

Still another very lucrative career option is media. Science communication is of major importance and opens the door to politics, which as a society we desperately need scientists to transition into.

Both of my early companies operate in this space, providing scientific consulting for film and television, and arming potential investors with critical insight into the pipelines of biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies they are eyeing for investment. Even this blog, which I maintain with Dave for the purpose of social enterprise, draws income, and there are examples on the University Affairs website of university professors who have left their tenure-track appointments to become professional bloggers when they realized the salary they were drawing through their blogs was higher than what they were seeing through their academic appointment. There is, of course, journalist, editor, illustrator, television, radio, podcast, and advertising to consider as well.

You’ll laugh, but a colleague of mine was being paid a six-figure salary to research drug names and come up with new branding for pharmaceutical products, for which they exclusively hire research scientists.

Members of Parliament also do very well, and you are in a position to effect even greater change there than you would through purely academic pursuits. There is, of course, no reason why Prime Minister shouldn’t be on that list as well. Science is increasingly becoming integrated into our social fabric and experts are required at all levels to transform the potential of new perspectives, approaches, and discoveries into true social gains.

Defining Roles

One thing that has always surprised me is that scientists are, as a general rule, perfectly content resigning themselves to generating ideas, publishing the landmark paper validating the technology, leveraging this technology to ask for a small amount of money, lathering, rinsing and repeating. Business, by comparison, has resigned itself to seeking out great ideas, turning them into a practical product, using them to generate a lot more money, lathering rinsing and repeating.

My question is, if the skillset is the same, why stop here? Especially when the income generated at the tail end can be fed back to support your own research program. Universities already do this by retaining rights to your intellectual property and licensing it to third party companies for profit. Why shouldn’t you reclaim your intellectual property and do the same? Besides, who better to develop the technology and apply it, than the very scientists who generated it? This doesn’t only pertain to profit, but value as a whole. What good are scientific advancements that no one hears about? Why should a society continue to support science they cannot relate to or understand?

These last two questions will comprise my upcoming final post of the series.

ABOUT JONATHAN THON
Jonathan Thon
Dr. Thon is the founder and chief scientific officer of Platelet BioGenesis.
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