THE (Times Higher Education) - - OPINION -

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.”

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