An interview with AAMC’s chief scientific officer, Ann Bonham, PhD

By Catherine Rogers
Among the esteemed faculty for the 2011 Advancing Ethical Research (AER) Conference is Ann Bonham, PhD. As the chief scientific officer of the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC), Dr. Bonham plays a critical role in advancing ethical research. Conference attendees can look forward to her presentation during the pre-conference program The Buck Starts & Stops Here: Investigator Responsibilities for the Ethical Conduct of Research on December 1. For more information or to register for this program, please visit our website.

What are your key goals/agenda items as chief scientific officer at AAMC?
We have four specific goals. The first is to advocate and educate broadly about the benefits of biomedical research, from basic and clinical research, to community based participatory research (CPBR), to health services research, to implementation science.

The second goal is to work with academic medicine to come up with business models and strategies that will sustain biomedical research through economic constraints. This includes creating models and strategies that focus on quality and impact over growth and ensuring outcomes that matter to patients, the public at large, and Congress. AAMC just released a report showing that in 2009, the immediate economic impact of biomedical research in AAMC member medical schools and teaching hospitals was close to $45B and 300,000 jobs.

The third goal is to help establish pathways for academic medicine to build principled partnerships with industry. The shortage of new drugs and diagnostics in the pipeline call for innovative partnerships in which efforts are combined to ensure the development of new therapeutics to improve health in the next decade. 

The fourth goal is to use science to create an evidence base for improving patient and population outcomes while reducing costs in delivery of care. Health care legislation pointed to the need to fix the fragmented care delivery system and to broaden the concept of comparative effectiveness research.

What other programs or research initiatives are you involved with outside of your work with AAMC?
At AAMC, my responsibilities for engaging with policy makers and the leadership of academic medicine keep me busy.

At the 2011 AER Conference you will be participating as a faculty member for the pre-conference program, The Buck Starts & Stops Here: Investigator Responsibilities for the Ethical Conduct of Research. Given your own experience as a researcher, what do you think is needed to better facilitate effective and ethical research?
I believe that 99.99% of investigators are committed to performing ethical research that advances health and protects the privacy and safety of human subjects. What would be helpful is to clarify the roles and responsibilities for all those involved in clinical research. It would also be beneficial to have a clearer understanding of the rules and regulations surrounding the requirements for research. Clarity about the rules and showing compliance are the most helpful, but then the question is, how best to accomplish that?

What motivates you to maintain your commitment to advancing ethical research?
I believe that research is a social contract to improve the health of the public through discovering new knowledge and applying existing knowledge so that all of society benefits.

What challenges do you see ahead for medical research in general? Any ethical challenges in particular?
Some future research involving personalized medicine based on genomic variations; increased probability of using stem cells; and an emphasis on doing research with communities will bring significant attention to informed consent. However, that will be become complicated in terms of what’s needed to complete the research, and how we go about understanding a community’s perceptions of informed consent and transparency.

What advice do you have for young professionals interested in pursuing a career in research, research ethics, and/or a related field? 
Despite current national economic challenges, it’s a privilege and an opportunity to make and apply discoveries related to improving health. Imagine making a new discovery that will improve the health of not one or two or 10, but thousands of individuals. It would be impossible to have that commitment to improving health without a commitment to ethics, as real and true research must have ethics embedded in it.