ABSTRACT Fred Sanger developed technologies that won him two Nobel Prizes and revolutionized biological research. Yet, in spite of this record, the question has been raised as to whether, in the current scientific climate, he might be unsuccessful in obtaining a grant because of a productivity that would be viewed as too limited. In imagining how a National Institutes of Health study section today might treat a proposal from Sanger to sequence DNA, we can ask whether there are lessons from his career that suggest changes to the grant review process.
Stanley Fields concludes,
Fred Sanger was a remarkable scientist who left a legacy of superlative achievements that continued throughout his career, not punctuated brilliant insights interspersed with long periods of reflection and inactivity. Regardless of the vagaries of current NIH peer review, Sanger would have flourished with these achievements. But in our fears that even a Sanger might no longer be fundable, are we also expressing a wistfulness that the days of the lone scientific genius might be gone? In an era of large collaborations, multi-authored papers, and enormous datasets, is there still room for the single creative idea that proves to be a gamechanger? I for one surely want to believe there is still room. Many of us went into science in search of those rare moments of discovery when we alone comprehend some sliver of the physical world that was unknown a moment earlier. If creative biologists directing small laboratories no longer can obtain the funding to continue that search, science will be a bit the poorer for it. But if there is no place even for the next Sangers to carry out their studies, humanity will be much the poorer for it.
It reminds one of two things:
We are told that when Albert Einstein was informed of a book titled One hundred authors against Einstein, he simply replied, “Why 100 authors? If I were wrong, then one would have been enough!” Also, large scale taxpayer funding tends to disproportionately increase the number of middling achievers in a field. Left to themselves, they can create a climate against innovation, exploration, and risk-taking, with predictable results. Lots and lots of “correct” papers; comparatively few genuine innovations. See, you only need to be “correct” in such an environment, which means going along with whatever is current.
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