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Francis Collins talks about "Rock Stars of Science" campaign

06/19/2009
Erin Podolak

Featured in this month’s GQ Magazine, Rock Stars of Science honors researchers who have added to the search for cures for cancer and Alzheimer’s.

It may be difficult to imagine the culture of flashing lights and riotous guitar riffs associated with famous rock stars merging successfully with the academic culture of prestigious scientists. Yet celebrities like Joe Perry, guitarist for Aerosmith, and scientists like Francis Collins, former director of the Human Genome Project, are synonymously described in this month’s issue of GQ as “rock stars.”

Celebrities and scientists, united by the belief that the government should do more to fund research into treatments for cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, are joining the Rock Stars of Science (Rock S.O.S.) campaign. Sponsored by Geoffrey Beene Gives Back, Rock S.O.S is designed to draw attention to the need for different allocations for government funding for research. “This seemed to be a great idea for trying to achieve more visibility for science—and perhaps also to make scientists seem more approachable and less nerdy,” said Collins, who is rumored to be the next director of the NIH.

Rock S.O.S. brings together traditional rock stars with research rock stars: scientists who have made significant contributions to the search for cures for disease. “These days a rock star can be anyone whose genius moves the crowd—whether they’re onstage or in the lab,” reads the GQ advertisement.

Perry and Collins, along with Rudolph Tanzi, an Alzheimer’s disease researcher, kicked off the campaign by posing together for a six-page magazine spread. For the scientists, spending time with some of their own favorite musicians was an added bonus, “I loved it, I’ve listened to Aerosmith for decades, and I’m an amateur guitar-player myself,” said Collins. “That’s my own guitar in the [advertisement], though you can’t see the double helix in mother-of-pearl on the fret board.” (If you want to check out one of Collins' performances, check out this video of his farewell celebration from the National Human Genome Research Institute and fast forward to about 1:00:10 ).

The spread also features stars Sheryl Crow, Seal, Josh Groban, and Will.i.am. The celebrities posed for the magazine with 11 scientists from varying institutions, including Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Allergies and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), and Harold Varmus, president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, which is home to the Geoffrey Beene Cancer Research Center. The campaign also promoted the Geoffrey Beene Gives Back Alzheimer’s Initiative. By teaming up with the celebrities, the scientists hope to draw attention to the financial needs of their research. “Does Congress read GQ? I bet some of them do. With so many medical research opportunities right now, and a stressed NIH budget, every bit helps,” said Collins.

Since it was established in 2006, Geoffrey Beene Gives Back has donated over $100 million to the cancer center to research, professorships, symposia, and training. Funding the Rock S.O.S. program is another component of the program. The company also provides funding for academic scholarships, the welfare of women and children, veterans support, and the protection of animals through the program.

Though Rock S.O.S. focuses on funding for cancer and Alzheimer’s research, funding is still needed to study a variety of other diseases, “I think the priorities are best established by NIH, considering a variety of parameters, including scientific opportunity and burden of disease. I think there’s a good argument to be made right now to push hard on therapeutics for rare and neglected diseases too,” said Collins.

Visitors to the Rock S.O.S. web site can add their name to a list that includes the celebrities and scientists declaring, “In our lifetime, we deserve to see our brain span match our life span, early diagnosis improve our odds, our DNA become the blueprint for health, and research funding as a national priority. We stand together and refuse to accept ‘no cure’ as an answer.” The list of names will be used to gain attention from Capitol Hill.

When it is officially launched, the web site will allow visitors to nominate their own Rock Stars of Science, view behind-the-scenes footage, and read interviews with all of the Rock Stars.