Q&A: ATS Executive Director Stephen C. Crane

Stephen C. Crane, PhD, MPH

Stephen C. Crane, PhD, MPH

An interview with Stephen C. Crane, PhD, MPH, executive director of the ATS

Q: Three years ago, you recommended a tagline for the ATS International Conference—”Where today’s science meets tomorrow’s care”—that everyone seems to like. As taglines go, it’s unusual. Why do you think that is?
A: It really sums up what the ATS International Conference is about. We’re widely recognized as presenting the best science. But that’s not enough. ATS is committed to helping translate that science into patient care. Science that is not translated into patient care is a lost opportunity. Conversely, patient care that is not solidly based on science is deficient.

Q: Patients, understandably, get frustrated by the time it takes for a discovery to become a diagnostic and therapeutic reality. Does the ATS have a role to play in shortening this timeframe?
A: I think it definitely does. In fact, that’s one of the main reasons we have an International Conference: researchers can share discoveries with other researchers and with clinicians. Our journals are another important vehicle for communication and advancing the speed of discovery through shared findings and learning.

The ATS traces its roots back more than a century. Our founders—clinicians and scientists who worked at TB sanatoriums—believed in a simple but powerful truth: The chances of conquering the world’s most deadly epidemic were exponentially increased through collaboration.

Their philosophy remains a touchstone for the American Thoracic Society. Everything we do—from publishing our three journals to creating guidelines for clinical care—involves teams of experts from many different specialties, disciplines and institutions around the world. They work collaboratively and believe that they can improve patients’ lives and advance the public’s health.

Q: Science and how it might benefit patients is what drives people to the ATS, but isn’t funding for research down? Does that threaten the ATS’s mission?
A: No, that doesn’t threaten our mission, but it does threaten patient care long-term. An important part of our mission is to advocate for more research dollars from all public and private sources. Our alliance with patients through the ATS Public Advisory Roundtable (PAR) is crucial for our effectiveness. So, we’ve redoubled our efforts in that arena. Our Foundation has significantly ramped up its efforts to raise funds for the Foundation’s Research Program, which has been incredibly successful in launching research careers.

I should add that international research is just as important as research going on here in the United States. This is why we believe partnering with the other members of FIRS (Forum of International Respiratory Societies) to increase worldwide research funding and continuing programs like MECOR (Methods in Epidemiologic, Clinical and Operations Research) is so important.

As you know, MECOR has grown beyond its Latin American base to teach clinicians in Africa, Turkey and Vietnam how to formulate and conduct research projects that answer important questions relevant to the circumstances in which they practice pulmonary, critical care and sleep medicine.

Q: Do ATS members ever criticize the breadth of the Society’s mission?
A: In our Society, there is always a tension between those who “want to do everything” and those who would prefer to focus on just a few things. I think it’s a healthy tension because it forces us to be as efficient in our operations as possible, integrate and seek synergy of effort.

But, as far as the Society’s international reach, that is almost universally seen as a plus. Our members know that there are no boundaries when it comes to health. If someone has made a major breakthrough halfway around the world, they all want to know about it.

Q: Your members must be frustrated that research funding is under attack, but for patients the prospects of retreating on efforts to find cures must be devastating. 
A: Well, the patients and family members I meet are generally optimistic. Many fight for cures not for themselves, but for the next generation of those whose lives will be cut short or otherwise challenged by these diseases. This is why I believe ATS PAR, our patient arm, has been so generous in supporting our Research Program. They know the recipients of these grants are poised to become major researchers and educators in the field, now and in the future.

So, patients and their families have hope even when a cure lies beyond the horizon. And even in the face of research funding cutbacks, they know medicine can do better. Part of the Society’s job is to translate that hope into the reality of effective treatments and cures.

Many of the best practices in medicine aren’t even practiced widely. Major breakthroughs in care often take years to reach patients. This is why the ATS International Conference is so important. This conference brings together those who are changing the future of medicine through basic, translational and clinical research with dedicated and compassionate clinicians who are determined to find answers for their patients.

The ATS and its International Conference is not just about the Society’s members or its attendees. It’s about the people we all serve: patients worldwide.