Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Michelle McMurry-Heath

Steve Clemons: Each day we're interviewing consequential leaders and innovators in the battle against the coronavirus. Science may have been put on the back burner in certain corners, but researchers and scientists are working around the world and around the clock to study COVID-19 in a search to find a treatment or cure. While many scientists may have been discouraged by the discourse, others are optimistic that science will fundamentally change how we combat this virus. And one pace-setter recently sent a message of hope to her cohort, saying in part, “I want scientists and clinicians and innovators to hold their heads high knowing they are addressing the most important issues we face today. And I couldn't be prouder for this opportunity to support their work and shout their message from the rooftop.” That positive message came on the heels of her recent appointment as incoming president and CEO of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, or BIO. Dr. Michelle McMurray-Heath has been a science and technology policy fellow at the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Vice President of External Innovation and Global Leader for Regulatory Science with Johnson&Johnson. She's hoping to start a new conversation around science and patients, a timely one, clearly, with social justice as a cornerstone. Michelle, welcome, and thank, so much for joining us today. You started all of this out with, really, a comment about, “lift your heads high.” It was really a comment about morale. So, before we get into all the things that BIO may do in this moment, I want to talk about the morale of science and the morale of those that are out there, because there has been a tough time for scientists in this time, and I would love to get your insights on that. And just to acknowledge that you yourself are a scientist.

Michelle McMurry-Heath: Yes, well, you know, it's so interesting to me because I've had the privilege of knowing so many amazing scientists and clinicians through the last 20 years of working in this space, and I know why they got into what they do. They are doing science in the health care space because they want to save lives and transform the human experience, and they are doing it out of commitment, out of passion and out of drive, and they’re inspiring. And so I just want the American public to see the side of science that I've gotten to see all these years, which is an amazing group of committed and talented people trying to make the world a better place. And that's really what I think biotechnology is about.

Clemons: Are you concerned about the, at least in my mind from my perch, about the struggles over science versus politics in the White House and as we've approached this health pandemic. Do you think there are things that you can bring to the table that would help bolster science at this moment and remind the public, “hey, this is worth the investment.” 

McMurry-Heath: I'm not concerned. I'm not concerned because I take the long view. I know that as we faced challenges through history, science has often been the tool that we've used to really surmount them. And the current crisis that we're facing with COVID[-19] is a perfect example. Science has the ability to solve the most pressing issues that we face today, and making that science, making sure that that science gets done, that the innovators have the space to create and get their creations out to the patients and people who need them, that is a social justice fight that I am willing to fight and that I think we can win. 

Clemons: Now, I watched your welcome videos — for those of you who want to watch them, go to BIO’s web page — and they’re a series of fascinating videos, interviews with you, really, of one-minute snapshots and the one that I really liked, as you said, “look, we've done the easy science. The low-hanging fruit has been taken. This is a time for big science.” Can you walk us through what we need, how we need to think about vaccines and antivirals and the various kinds of pharmaceutical approaches to battling COVID-19 and what's involved?

ADVERTISEMENT

McMurry-Heath: Well, we need to do exactly what we've been doing, which is forget about borders. Forget about distinctions. Forget about small companies, large companies, academia, federally-funded, private-funded, and all get together and collaborate and find new ways to approach this and take as many options, as many approaches as we can. I have been so heartened by the fact that over a short 16 weeks, over 400 projects have been started among BIO member companies to try to address COVID[-19]. Over 130 of those are targeted just at trying to develop a vaccine. This is the way we win. This is always the way science wins. Let a thousand flowers grow, and let's use all of our brain power and all of our collaborative approaches and all of our communication skills to get those approaches over the finish line.

Clemons: One of things I love about BIO is it's not all just big organizations. There are many, many, you know, small private-sector innovators in that space. And you've been at Johnson & Johnson; one of your roles was looking at innovation out there. So, what does that community of innovators and small BIO businesses need that it doesn't have today?

McMurry-Heath: Well, one of the things I love about BIO is that it's not just in the health space, you know. We have companies small and large and everything from agriculture trying to improve our food supply, the environment, trying to find an end to global warming and in the healthcare space. And it's just a testament to how biotechnology can touch so many parts of our lives and improve so many areas of our culture and our future. So, that is very, very inspiring. You talk about the nexus of small companies and large companies and the whole ecosystem of innovation. It is that, it's an ecosystem, and ecosystems rely on all of the components being healthy and vibrant. And that's really what BIO, the organization, stands for, making sure that we have lots of different contributors, from lots of different segments of this approach and making sure that they all work together.

Clemons: You've been in this town a lot. You worked with lots of different organizations and you've been either a fellow or a director. You've been in the private sector and you know Capitol Hill. How do you grade the literacy of those people, those decisionmakers on Capitol Hill when it comes to the biological sciences and biological security. And I'll just add to this that I've had the privilege of interviewing people like former Senator Bill Frist, Senator Chris CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsMurkowski: Supreme Court nominee should not be taken up before election Battle lines drawn on precedent in Supreme Court fight Sunday shows - Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death dominates MORE, Republican and Democratic legislators, all of whom have said, “look, we've been warned about pandemics before. We need to do more to invest in protection in platform vaccines in this whole sector than we're doing now.” But a lot of members of Congress don't get that yet. So, I'm interested in how you, heading this important organization, are going to reach those that have been somewhat recalcitrant and not on the line and believe that they're not all literate in the same way. So, how are you gonna bring them in, bring them over? 

McMurry-Heath: So, I came to Washington, D.C., 20 years ago as a science policy fellow for what I thought was going to be a year and has turned into close to 20. And part of the reason I stayed was it is such an incredibly vibrant and intellectually robust community of people who really care about policy issues. Now, there are lots of policy issues to care about and we have lots of important needs as a society and as a culture. But I don't want anyone out there to underestimate the intellectual heft that staffers on the Hill, members of our executive branch agencies, policy leaders throughout the policy ecosystem have. They bring a lot of brain power to bear, and they're always impressive. I think our job as scientists, and it is our job, is to find a way to translate what we know about science and how pivotal a role science can play in so many of those policy issues, into the areas that they care about, so that it becomes part of the American debate and dialogue around what we need to accomplish as a culture. So that's on us. And I think we're up to the task.

Clemons: I largely agree with you. And I also worked in the Senate sometime when I know you were working with Senator Lieberman on his campaign, and I think the staffers that are there, I just think it would really be great if their bosses read up to. But that aside, back to school for a moment, you had another remarkable achievement as being the first African American woman to graduate from Duke University's Medical Scientist Training Program. And while that sounds great, I was astonished by that because that means that only recently that that happened. And so, part of the time, you know, the issues that we're dealing with today are ones of inclusion, of diversity, of making that real, and that includes in science, in medicine, across the board. So, I'd love to get your thoughts on how that door gets opened that you've clearly attained, but to so many others, so that we can have a genuinely inclusive scientific community here.

McMurry-Heath: So, let me start by saying that the events of the last week have been heartbreaking. Heartbreaking and yet not surprising. I believe racism is a chronic disease that we face, that plagues us as a culture, and we have to address it as such. We have to do everything we can to make sure that we are being as inclusive as possible, that we are breaking down barriers and silos, that we’re making every space of science and biotechnology open and welcoming to a diverse set of minds, because it's only in that diversity that we get all of the brainpower and perspectives that we need to solve the major issues that we face. So that's critical. BIO is committed to that. We are going to be having a very interesting dialogue surrounding race at our upcoming BIO digital conference, which is taking place next week, and we are going to face this very difficult conversation head-on. And I believe that frank dialogue is where we need to start. But then there needs to be followed very closely by a lot of action. You need to figure out what we can do to build the bridges and make sure that we have a more inclusive and diverse scientific community. I personally have benefited from so many great efforts from people of color, but also people who aren't of color, who really have wrapped their arms around scientists, young scientists trying to come up in the field. And I think we need to do more of that. But stay tuned. There's going to be a lot more to come and you're going to see BIO front and center on this effort because it is critical to advance in science and making sure that science is successful.

Clemons: Do you think among your companies that they get this? … I know [BIO is] doing the digital forum on this, but basically to set a practice of new norms, if you will, in terms of how it cultivates talent, how it outreaches to universities, how it creates partnerships for the inclusion of talent. It's just something — I can feel in your words, but I'm just wondering, do you have ideas on how you can make this a deep commitment of many of your members? 

McMurry-Heath: Well, I don't think I have to make it a deep commitment. I think that it is a deep commitment. My phone has been ringing off the hook this week from BIO member companies who are passionate about this area, who have been working in this area, in this space, for quite some time. And they want that work to be more visible, more powerful and more impactful. And we're gonna come together next week not just at the conference, but also at our board meeting to figure out what is the best way for BIO to support those efforts because they are myriad, they are numerous, and I am so proud of how this community has really risen to this challenge. You can look at some of the statements that have come out from BIO member companies’ CEOs and just take heart in the fact that they take this very seriously and they are committed. I mean, Ken Frazier, the CEO of Merck, gave an amazing interview earlier this week where he said, “You know, it could have been me.” He spent over 15 minutes on CNBC talking to business leaders about what a critical issue this is. It's that kind of personal leadership and courage that I see throughout our member companies. And I think the public will see more of that in coming weeks.

Clemons: Great. And just in our final couple of minutes, Michelle, I'd love to get your thoughts on the science ecosystem out there. You know, I've done a lot of programs with groups like Triple E S and Research America and others and your predecessor, in fact, who'd been worried that we weren't investing in basic science enough, that our funding commitment to university research out there, that when you kind of look broadly at that science ecosystem that some of the support was eroding and that was dangerous for the country. I'd love to get your insights on how to turn that around or whether you even agree with those views.

McMurry-Heath: Well, whether I agree or not, it's self-evident. The crisis we face today with COVID[-19] is a clear example that we have fallen short of where we needed to be in terms of our long-term investment and commitment to science. You mentioned my comment earlier about there being no easy science left. This is big science. These are big, tough issues and it takes a sustained, focused effort to make headway. That's headway I know we can make. It's within our ability and it's within our ambition. But we just have to maintain that commitment. So, I'm hopeful, personally, that given how pivotal this crisis has been, that we will regain that focus, that we will regain that commitment and use this as an opportunity to say science is central to the progress of America. Science is central to the survival in this world. Science is central to social justice and equality and moving our culture in the right direction. And so, for that, we need to have a sustained focus and a sustained investment.

Clemons: Well, Michelle McMurry-Heath, thank you so much for those thoughts today. I should say that one of the things that I really love about BIO is Good Day BIO. For those of you watching tand don’t know, Good Day BIO is a daily newsletter I get on what's happening across the bio field and many of the members, but it's just one of the great primers that gives you an understanding of science, government policy. And I absorb it every day. So, thank you and congratulations on your new job.