We had a wonderful opportunity to meet with the MIT Vice President for Research, Dr. Maria Zuber. One of the fascinating topics of our conversation was on the parallels we found between clinical trials and space missions. Some of the common challenges of these large-scale experiments are:
1. Cost – hundreds of millions for a large Phase III trial and for the science mission.
2. High risks – with multitudes of pathways to failure.
3. Complexity – carefully managed through a hierarchy of specialists.
4. Abundance of oversight – for topics ranging from safety to science.
Dr. Zuber then described some of the approaches she developed to address these challenges, particularly when she was the PI of a NASA-sponsored mission to explore lunar gravity. While some of the specifics of these approaches might not be directly applicable to clinical trials, the strategies, seen from a broader systems perspective, are certainly worth exploring. Examples include: proactively seeking ideas to reduce risk, pushing back on the sponsor, allowing unfiltered reviews, and discarding those “sacred” activities that are not essential to the mission.
What I found most impressive was the fact that a top-level scientist would devote all of her intellectual energy towards the multi-disciplinary operational processes of the mission.
This photograph shows the leaders of our clinical trials project with Maria Zuber. But the image that remains with me most clearly is that of Dr. Zuber at the Mission Control Center, watching all of the panels and being the only one who could understand how they are all integrated together. This is true systems thinking.