Focus in Sound - Ep. 26

Ernie Hood interviews Fund President and CEO Dr. Louis Muglia on his first six months in office

Welcome to a Special Edition of FOCUS In Sound, the podcast series from the FOCUS newsletter published by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund.  I’m your host, science writer Ernie Hood.

In this Special Edition of FOCUS In Sound, we meet with the CEO and President of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, Dr. Louis Muglia, who will guide us through the Fund’s multi-faceted response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and will discuss the Fund’s stance on Social Justice.

Lou, thank you for joining us on Focus in Sound…

Ernie, thank you for this interview. I look forward to it, and conveying some of the enthusiasm I feel about what Burroughs Wellcome Fund can contribute during this extraordinary time.

You were named President and CEO of the Fund in January of this year, and the ink was hardly dry on your contract when the COVID-19 crisis cropped up.  What has that been like for you?

Well, I can tell you, when I started at the Burroughs Wellcome Fund as the President and CEO of the organization in January of 2020, I had had a long experience with the Burroughs Wellcome Fund.  I had been one of their initial awardees in the biomedical sciences in 1995, I’ve been their advisor on their review committees for many years, including up until I became the President, and I was so excited about not only what the Burroughs Wellcome Fund had been doing, but also the potential it has for moving forward. 

It’s a real intellectual innovation catalyst for all kinds of great science moving forward.  And we began a strategic planning exercise at that point about what things we wanted to keep, what things we wanted to modify, which things we wanted to move forward, and I must say COVID-19 was not one of the considerations in that portfolio at the time.  And at this point I don’t think COVID-19 is changing our long-term strategies, trajectories, and priorities, but what it has reinforced to me is how important organizations like the Burroughs Wellcome Fund are, that can be flexible, adaptable, and nimble and prioritized based on acute needs to invest funding in critical situations.  And so as challenging, as devastating as the issues around human health and COVID-19 have been, around the continued wounds that racial injustice portend for society, we’ve been allowed to have our organization step up to the challenge and figure out how we can have the most impact in this transformative period of human history.

Let’s explore the Fund’s response to the pandemic.  How has it affected Burroughs Wellcome Fund operations?

Well, just in the way we work every day.  I mean, we are a small family of Burroughs Wellcome Fund staff.  We have an extensive extended family of advisors and colleagues that we use our Board of Trustees to help us shape our mission moving forward.  And usually we’ve hosted those events at the Burroughs Wellcome Fund headquarters in Research Triangle Park.  It’s an incredible facility that is a real opportunity to generate a hub for engagement across not only Research Park but across the United States, and across the United States and Canada, which we look forward to doing when times again allow that to be a safe opportunity for us.  But what’s happened is, we’ve moved to entirely virtual platforms, entirely videoconferenced engagements with our advisory committees, with our finalists for awards. We’ve run now successfully awards for the Career Awards in Medical Sciences, Career Awards at the Scientific Interfaces, Pathogenesis of Infectious Diseases and others on virtual platforms, and I don’t think we’ve lost much momentum in doing so.  The engagements have been great.  We’ve come to resolution about who our final candidates should be, and we’re entirely invested in those programs, as have been in the past.  So that’s all been, I think, very positive.  It’s been disappointing not to have the engagement in person, but for many reasons now, we’ve rethought our priorities, and feel like this has caused us to come to some I think needed conclusions. 

First, I think it’s good to have our advisory panels together to understand and communicate more effectively as a team in making decisions, but probably it makes more financial, environmental, and safety sense to not have twice as many finalists as will be awardees come to Burroughs Wellcome Fund headquarters for twenty minutes.  Their twenty minutes in the sun to interview with the panel, when they can do it virtually and have the same impact.  At least that’s my impression of how it’s gone. 

What we’ve additionally done is, as you might guess, we fund a lot of symposia, workshops, convenings at the Burroughs Wellcome Fund headquarters now that have been either delayed or canceled, which is unfortunate.  But what it’s done is allow us to have resources to funds that would not be utilized now, that we can use to impact COVID-19 directly.  So we’ve reprioritized many of those funds for acute projects, which we didn’t envision six months ago.  So if we fostered a workshop for our early career investigators, to bring them together to help them meet the challenges they’re facing with starting their laboratories amidst this time of real struggle, of transitioning institutions which have been delayed, of even finding a job; many universities now have hiring freezes for new faculty members.  So it’s a challenging time for them.  We’re helping them try to get through that.  We’ve been very flexible with our funding in terms of no-cost extensions, about allowing re-prioritization of funds to address COVID-19 issues, and then last we’ve had a request for proposals amongst our network of awardees to put things forward for short-term funding consideration to try to solve this problem of COVID-19 in a basic science way more acutely.  So we just awarded two research grants to collaborations amongst our awardees from Burroughs Wellcome Fund in the past, and we’re excited about moving those forward.  And we did that within a two-month period of time, which is an extraordinary turnaround for grants.  So we want to get these things started, implemented, and having impact as soon as we can. 

And last, I think, we’ve been working very closely with the North Carolina schools and the North Carolina museums to help them get through this period as well.  As you might imagine, education is being sort of reinvented.  Our North Carolina museums are struggling, and we’re trying to figure out how to make educational resources as widely available to as many individuals as possible.

Lou, on June 2, in the wake of the widespread demonstrations following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, you issued a statement on the Fund’s stance on social justice. Would you briefly recap that statement for us?

Well, Ernie, as you know, I think that deeply affected all of us at Burroughs Wellcome Fund as well as our country as a whole and the world as a whole, as we’ve seen in the outcry after it.  And as you know, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund has been an organization that has had as one if its core foundational values a commitment to foster diversity, equity, and inclusion in science education and society.  We are absolutely passionate about that.  I think you can look at our portfolio and see that we’ve invested in diversity enrichment programs at the K-12 level, undergraduate level, graduate student level, and into early careers, and we are passionate about that.  And we feel we just cannot be silent on these issues of enormous social injustice that continue to manifest themselves in our society that was really founded on the values of human dignity, freedom, and justice that we seem to abandon and let struggle through our existence in this country.  We are a country of diversity, and that has been one of our great prides.  I think it was especially challenging for us knowing that we have been invested in this area, and we recognize how science and STEM education in diversity have been one of our core driving factors.  But now we have to go past that.  We have to go past it, to address the inequalities and injustices of race more broadly, because it’s a pervasive aspect of society that affects all of these other things in our pipeline.  And we are committed to doing that.  We will not stand quiet.  We will look to engage other philanthropic organizations in joining us in this.  And I think as you will see, we’ve gone beyond the traditional boundaries of just science, technology, engineering and mathematics to really address social injustice and what race means at a more fundamental level with things we’re investing on, like the race exhibit we’re bringing to North Carolina, which we’re very proud of in terms of engaging the public.  And we continue to try to build networks of diverse voices in our portfolio of family, colleagues at every level, whether they’re awardees, advisors, and the community.  We’ve had some great engagement with people in the region and in the country around building diversity programs, both with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, with colleagues in the region about opportunities to bring these voices more into everyday occurrence in not only science education but in how we think about funding science in general. 

Lou, tell us about some of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund’s efforts and planning over the next six months.

Ernie, I think the last several months now have caused us to really think strategically even more so about where we want to go and what kinds of new activities or enhanced activities we want to have as an organization.  And I would say given the current events, one of the things we feel most passionate about is a desire to improve science communication broadly.  And one mechanism I see to do that is to better integrate science and the arts, which is going to be an overarching theme at the Burroughs Wellcome Fund.  And to do that, we feel we need to do several things better. We need to educate scientists better on how to communicate and how it’s a part of their role as a scientist to communicate.  It’s not something extra.  We also really are passionate about bringing diversity voices into science communication.  So we are partnering now with a media outlet called The Conversation to develop a program specifically around engaging diversity voices more in putting out scientific articles on timely events in the world, which I think will be unique, drawing upon both historically Black colleges and universities, some of our awardee networks of enrichment program scholars, and building this network that never existed before.  And I think it will be very impactful for understanding and being more inclusive in race [and] gender diversity in the scientific media and communication to the public, and engaging the public from those diversity communities as well.  So it’s a bidirectional dialogue, and we hope to hear from diverse communities in ways that we have not in the past.  And one thing I think we can particularly do to enhance that is to not only better show what we want to convey in words, but also do it in images.  Because I think the way we see information can sometimes be much more informative than the words alone.  So we are having a major initiative in better data visualization, data graphics, to convey information clearly, accurately and informatively that will engage the public, will engage scientists, and just hopefully generate new ideas and understanding of the very complex problems that are plaguing us in the world today.

Lou, thank you so much for taking the time to update everyone on the Fund’s response to COVID-19 and social justice.  I will look forward to sitting down in person with you in the near future to conduct a proper welcoming interview with you now that you’ve taken the helm at the Burroughs Wellcome Fund.

Thank you so much, Ernie.  There’s been no better time for the Burroughs Wellcome Fund to be able to really use its vision and mission, which have not changed, to impact the critical issues that are facing our society right now.  We are deeply committed to that, and we have the team that I know can do it, together with our colleagues around the country that serve to advise us.  So more to follow, much more to do, and hopefully, much progress ahead.

We hope you’ve found value in this Special Edition of the FOCUS In Sound podcast.  Until next time, this is Ernie Hood.  Thanks for listening!