For more than a century, the Nobel prize has been science’s highest honour. While a handful of maverick geniuses have scooped the award during their thirties, most winners have been honoured later in life for research spanning decades, often backed by large teams and millions in funding.
But with competition for grants fiercer than ever, and with the pressure imposed on scientists by politicians and funders to generate results with foreseeable, real-world impact, do the respondents to our survey agree with Perlmutter that the kind of blue-sky research that tends to win Nobel prizes is no longer favoured? Specifically, do they think that their own prizewinning research could have been made in today’s funding environment?
Overall, they are fairly optimistic. Some 37 per cent say that they definitely could have produced their Nobel prizewinning research in the current funding system, while 47 per cent think that they “possibly” could have done.
“It is still the quality and originality of research that counts,” says one Swiss-based science laureate, while a US-based laureate remarks that “society was, and continues to be, very generous” towards research.
Another upbeat respondent, based in Germany, says that he would be confident of winning a European Research Council grant to pursue long-term projects.
Several Nobel prizewinners are critical of the rising bureaucracy around research and the trend towards funding applied science, yet they remain confident that they would have thrived in the current environment. “I believe my hard work and inspiration would overcome restrictions in funding,” says one Florida-based scientist.
“Even in the most mission-orientated research [environment], a place can be found for fundamental research,” adds a New York-based laureate.
Many respondents believe, however, that their Nobel win was largely unconnected to the issue of research funding, because the research was either self-funded or inexpensive. “I always worked on a shoestring,” observes one UK-based laureate. “I was a student, so did not need to find funds,” adds another.
However, some 16 per cent of laureates believe that it would probably have been impossible for them to have conducted their prizewinning research in the modern era. Richard J. Roberts, an English biochemist who shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1993 for work on gene splicing, doubts that
his breakthrough would have been possible in modern mainstream academia.
Roberts did his PhD at the University of Sheffield before moving to Harvard University and then to the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island. It was his time at the last institute, which was then led by DNA pioneer James Watson, that was crucial to his breakthrough.
“Had I been in a normal academic position, I don’t think that what I was proposing to do would have been funded,” says Roberts, who is now based at New England Biolabs, a private research company. “What I was asking was a very basic, simple question that people thought they knew the answer to, but they did not,” he adds.
Roberts worries that scientists are wasting an “unbelievable amount of time” writing grant proposals, which are mostly unsuccessful. Those who do receive funding also need the flexibility and time to pursue findings that, at first glance, appear unsuccessful.
“Good scientists know how to write grant funding applications, but what you end up researching is the work not included in your grant,” he explains. “When experiments fail, you have to ask why – you have either messed up or nature is trying to tell you something.”
Peter Agre, the US molecular biologist who shared the 2003 Nobel Prize in Chemistry (see box below right), agrees that the high attrition rate in grant funding may be deterring some from pursuing a research career. “No one would go into business and work as hard as they can knowing that there was only a 5 per cent chance that they would get funding,” says Agre, who is director of the Johns Hopkins Malaria Institute at the Baltimore university’s Bloomberg School of Public Health.
That said, a level of competition between researchers and a certain level of precarity is healthy, Agre adds.
“Science is not the French civil service – it should not have complete [job] security built into it,” he says.
Other Nobel prizewinners agree with Roberts’ take on today’s funding climate. “Nowadays, there is a lack of longterm positions and long-term funding for risky projects that could lead to a Nobel prize,” explains one laureate based in Germany. A New Jersey-based laureate concurs, saying that “dwindling support for basic research [means] less willingness to fund risky projects”.
“Brexit adds additional uncertainty to the future funding environment,” adds a UK laureate.
One US laureate’s prizewinning project was a “sideline, rather than my main project”. But the laureate is worried that such labours of love are discouraged in the modern era. “Current research evaluation is much too short-sighted, thereby guiding youths to pursue fashionable topics. [This] hampers the healthy growth of academia.”