A “licensed-but-independent” offshoot of the 28-year-old TED conference, which brings together luminaries from the worlds of technology, entertainment and design, TEDMED moved to Washington from San Diego this year to influence the national conversation regarding our growing pile of medical messes.
After all, it’s hard to imagine the director of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins, flying to California to share a stage with Cookie Monster.
The organizers sold 1,500 tickets, with an additional 200 “delegates” — many of them medical students — granted scholarships, making the event almost as exclusive as it was proud of itself.
There’s a rule at TEDMED: No selling from the stage. But it’s loosely enforced. All of the 70 speakers had something to peddle — their ideas — even if the sales pitch took the form of plush microbe toys tossed like super-sized anthrax spores into the audience.
Call it the Lollapalooza of medical meetings. But here, ultrasound machines for checking for blockage in one’s neck arteries replaced the bungee jump, and choir-enhanced five-course dinners in the gilded Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress stood in for soggy slices of pizza gobbled under a tarp.
The serious, sublime and ridiculous all joyously jostled for brain space while venture capitalists and biotechnology executives and pharma lobbyists availed themselves of meditation chambers and yoga classes.
Eminent Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson doffed his tie upon taking the podium, proclaiming he was overdressed amidst all the “Silicon Valley informal.”
One of his ideas — more of a kernel of an idea, in that it could be fully expressed via Twitter — quickly went semi-viral. “The ideal scientist is one who thinks like a poet and works like a bookkeeper,” Wilson said, and a thousand retweets sent the thought aloft, though the meeting’s shoddy WiFi kept this charming notion from gaining over-the-top online momentum.
Collins declared a grave crisis in the development of new drugs, intoning that it now takes 14 years and a billion dollars to bring a new pharmaceutical to market.
Later, dancer Stephen Petronio gyrated with an intravenous saline drip stuck into his arm. A blue-smocked assistant struggled to wheel the IV stand around as Petronio vigorously relayed a personal story of censorship in London that involved a $1,400 T-shirt adorned with images of cowboys having gay sex. The relationship of the story to modern medicine was unclear except in that the performance could be categorized as modern dance with large-bore needles.