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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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June 19, 2008

Anarchy in the EU

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Posted by Derek

There’s been a lot of arguing – has been for many years – about research funding over in the EU. This is above and beyond the usual “not enough” protests, which are the way with funding of pretty much everything, pretty much everywhere, pretty much all the time.

A word on that: in my last 25 years of hearing academic researchers talk about grant money, never once have I heard that the situation is good. It’s always bad, worse, getting worse, tight, terrible, year in and year out. That’s not to say that sometimes those adjectives haven’t been accurate, but it’s hard to imagine that they’ve applied without letup. Some years ago, I realized that asking a professor about research grants is exactly like asking a farmer about rain. I did grow up on the Mississippi Delta, which actually comes in handy once in a while.

But the latest EU discussion is only partially about the amount of money involved; it’s also about how it’s to be used. There was an editorial in Nature not long ago from a fellow who wanted to make sure that it was spent wisely. “Wisely”, in his view, was to make sure that it goes to “problems society recognizes as central”, and the way to do this, naturally, was to have large research collaborations and consortia. These would presumably be put together by committees, commissions, and various far-seeing agencies staffed by the sorts of experts who spring up whenever the money starts to sprinkle down. I can just hear the Third Organization Meeting of the Steering Committee starting up right now, the chairman reminding everyone that they have a very full schedule today, please take your seats for our first speaker on "The Challenges and Opportunities of Interdisciplinary Research Management in a Multipolar World". . .

I grit my teeth when I think about this sort of thing; it's enough to make a man wish he'd gone to truck-driving school instead. So I particularly enjoyed a letter that the journal printed in response, from Theo Wallimann at the ETH in Zurich. He points out that nearly every single significant discovery in the history of science has come outside the framework of such top-down research consortia. Single researchers or small groups pursuing their own ideas have been the source of the good stuff, and half the time these breakthroughs haven’t even been what people were looking for in the first place. Says Wallimann about the big multicenter operations:

“. . . These mostly involve laboratories that have already established their name and fame, and are now often comfortably operating on well-worn tracks or working opportunistically on headline-grabbing problems or fashionable topics.

Science and innovation are chaotic, stochastic processes that cannot be governed and controlled by desk-bound planners and politicians, whatever their intentions. Good scientists are by definition anarchists,”

I can only cheer him on, because I couldn’t do a better job of summing up what I believe about science myself. In tribute, I’m going to go out to my lab and try something anarchic: an experiment that’s very interesting, but has very little chance of succeeding. If the EU really wants to tell its scientists what to do, they would be better off mandating six months of the same.

Comments (47) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Who Discovers and Why


1. cookingwithsolvents on June 19, 2008 8:01 AM writes...

HERE, HERE! High-risk, high-reward SIDE projects should be on just about everyone's agenda, just about all the time.

The most exciting phrase to hear, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not "Eureka!" (I found it) but "That's funny...."
--Isaac Asimov

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2. HelicalZz on June 19, 2008 8:16 AM writes...

Well said. If you are going to set aside any funding with a specific earmark, I would suggest that first priority would be 'new researchers' or 'first grant applicaitons'.

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3. A-non-y-mous on June 19, 2008 8:17 AM writes...

". . . These mostly involve laboratories that have already established their name and fame, and are now often comfortably operating on well-worn tracks or working opportunistically on headline-grabbing problems or fashionable topics."

I don't know about every Prof at ETH, but it sounds like Wallimann just described the Chemistry department.

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4. processchemist on June 19, 2008 8:18 AM writes...

"EU science" it's not a good label, because it's supposed to group german institutions and romanian ones: not comparable things. Public funding of research in EC it's not targeted only to universities and other institutions, but also to private companies (oh yes, also in the biotech/drug discovery field) (sometimes it's quite hard to say if a company it's private or not, but this is another story).
Again: Switzerland can be in geographic europe, but is out of the EC. This means a different universe about funding (I think the CERN it's a big exception, but maybe some CERN experiments get also some US public money).
Other point: EC can say "this is the budget, and this is the area of intervention for funding", but beacuse of the multiple channels of erogation of the money (central EC authorities, national governments, regional administrations) projects often are approved following a political logic (that can be a different kind of logic for any EC nation).
It's a bulky system, but without this system we (europeans) would be without European Space Agency
and probably the LHC in Geneva would not be here.
There's a big efficiency problem, but this it's true for ANY bulky system, and not only for the public ones (Big Pharma Crisis is clear evidence on the private side).

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5. Boghot on June 19, 2008 8:58 AM writes...

More encouraging news for European anarchists:

European Research Council Grants

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6. eugene on June 19, 2008 10:20 AM writes...

In support of the other view, there have been two good success vis a vis controlled scientific discovery in the past. These have been the Manhattan Project and the Soviet Space Program. They got done in a short period of time what was needed by putting talented scientists to work together on a problem of importance.

It's very hard to recreate that spirit though. Mostly because the problems of today are not perceived with the same urgency by the best scientists.

In other news, I always thought Derek was a Sex Pistols fan.

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7. John Novak on June 19, 2008 10:49 AM writes...

A word on that: in my last 25 years of hearing academic researchers talk about grant money, never once have I heard that the situation is good. It’s always bad, worse, getting worse, tight, terrible, year in and year out. That’s not to say that sometimes those adjectives haven’t been accurate, but it’s hard to imagine that they’ve applied without letup.

It's that way in engineering, computer science, and the rest of the less theoretical sciencey, and more applied and technical fields, as well.

Almost every hyperventilating report I see on the imminent financial bankruptcy of the American Research Culture has, as its ultimate source, a report put out by university professors and affiliates who want more money.

And I am an engineer and a computer scientist. I'd like them to have more money, too, but they actually need to justify it, not just get money lobbed at them becuase it's good clean fun!

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8. Still Scared of Dinosaurs on June 19, 2008 11:17 AM writes...

I thought good discoveries were coming out of NIH with some consistency. How does this fit in with Wallimann's analysis? Is it the magnitude of the discoveries are small? Minimal direction of activities means decentralized research? Good PR, bad research?

Just wondering. I always thought that NIH was about as close as you could hope to get to optimal gov't-funded research. I just have no basis for understanding whether it supports the pro-anarchy viewpoint.

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9. trrll on June 19, 2008 12:15 PM writes...

I was at Downstate when Furchgott was doing his research, and helped one of his students with data analysis. The general view at the time was that Furchgott, although a great pharmacologist in his day, was basically "over the hill." He was puttering around with this obscure question of how acetylcholine dilates blood vessels. After all, there's no cholinergic innervation anyway, so who cares? Of course, a few years later, Furchgott had the Nobel prize and his "endothelium derived relaxing factor," now identified as nitric oxide was recognized as being relevant to many physiological processes and an important target for drug development

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10. Sigivald on June 19, 2008 12:18 PM writes...

Some years ago, I realized that asking a professor about research grants is exactly like asking a farmer about rain.

Naw, occasionally a farmer will complain about possible flooding, and not want more rain, at least in the short term.

Can you imagine a context in which a professor would ever, ever complain about having too much grant money?

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11. milkshake on June 19, 2008 3:14 PM writes...

Manhattan project, manned rocket flight programs and Moon landing race were basically high-profile TECHNOLOGY projects: lots of engineering and only a very little of applied science. And they were run on trainload of money supplied from government and the scientists got all high-profile support, all obstacles removed etc.

I wonder if the research-done-by-the-steering-committee disease is the actual reason why the big pharma research productivity is poor

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12. CMC guy on June 19, 2008 4:27 PM writes...

Excellent Post Topic. "Science and innovation are chaotic" is very true but often not recognized or admitted to, not only by Scientists but mostly Public/Governments. If one could predict what and when the next big discovery would be then obviously could do better but progress frequently comes from unexpected places or the convergence of different areas working independently. It’s a gamble and just like Vegas you mostly lose.

R&D, whether Academic or Industrial, almost always suffers from "underfunding" because typically more ideas or things to do than resources. Academics funding also tends to have distribution problems. New Profs will typically have Seed money for a while but unless they can establish reputation quickly they will hit tough times. Big Names will always seem to garner grants just because who they are even when it involves "well-worn tracks". Those in Mid-careers are thwarted so end up pursuing "hot areas (of that year)" to possibly get funds rather than "less promising explorations". Usually funding is simply supporting repetitive efforts rather than wild ventures. Although occasion Foundations approaches are less constrained majority of sources, including Industry sponsors, want to see direct applications/pay offs. Not that such criteria are not important however it would be nice to have a percentage of "what the heck are you thinking" grants extended.

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13. SP on June 19, 2008 7:59 PM writes...

Can you imagine a context in which a professor would ever, ever complain about having too much grant money?
I've seen this happen occasionally, due to odd grant restrictions- a grant is ending on day x+3, we need to spend $50k or we have to give the money back and if we do we can't renew the grant because obviously we didn't really need it, and you can't buy capital equipment. Quick, buy 20,000 pairs of gloves and 500 pounds of silica gel and store them in the closet for the next 10 years!

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14. Counterview on June 20, 2008 12:16 AM writes...

"He points out that nearly every single significant discovery in the history of science has come outside the framework of such top-down research consortia. Single researchers or small groups pursuing their own ideas have been the source of the good stuff, and half the time these breakthroughs haven't even been what people were looking for in the first place."

That's a popular mythology that echoes around the halls of academia but how well does it stand up to real scrutiny? The lone scientific investigator who has the eureka moment that changes the world is likely an apocryphal romanticism. Programs like the NIH, Manhattan project and Moon landing have already been mentioned (and a claim that these are TECHNOLOGY rather than science programs is merely splitting hairs). Sure there's a place for serendipity, but by definition serendipity is just as likely to happen in a large research consortia as in the lone-wolf laboratory -- more so in fact because cross discipline collaboration allows more opportunity for for scientists to notice oddities in other areas of science.

I think we have to get over this romantic, historical, view that science is a singular pursuit. The age of Louis Pasteur and Marie Curie are long past. Modern science and technology challenges more and more require critical mass and multi-disciplinary teams to address them.

Let the stoning begin...

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15. milkshake on June 20, 2008 1:53 AM writes...

yada yada yada. Look at the history of the cis-platin discovery, Counterview. This could have never happened in Industry or committee-run research program.

Doing chemistry/biology research things on scale of Manhattan Project is not realistic (Oak Ridge was consuming one sixth of the US electricity at one point, took most of silver from Fort Knox for calutron wires, and the program cost several billions of dolars, thats in 40s dollars).

Once you have enough red tape, you get less innovation and initiative, pencil pushers hiding behind collective irresponsibility, people being promoted based on their seniority and political skill rather than merit etc. Thre is universal tendency of burocratisation that completely undermines previously capable organisations - look what happened to NASA.

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16. Counterview on June 20, 2008 2:45 AM writes...

I have little appetite for debating the issue by anecdote because it's futile. Only slightly better than the puerility of "yada yada yada".

Sure, I'll happily concede that there have been important discoveries by lone researchers and there will likely be more in the future. Cis-platin is a terrible example though because, for one thing, it's medicinal use is at least 30 years old and it's been known since the 1800s. So if you're trying to convince people that lone-science used to be successful long ago, fine. I'm saying it's largely anachronistic in modern discovery.

As for it being unrealistic doing chemistry and biology on a scale of the Manhattan project, I think that might be news to Pfizer, Amgen and DuPont. The reality is that many, if not most, big advances in science today are emerging from organised research in substantial teams. Academics blather on about drug discovery in grant applications, and I don't begrudge them that because I understand the game, but we all know that success from that source is a rarity. An exception that proves the rule.

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17. retread on June 20, 2008 8:24 AM writes...

"in my last 25 years of hearing academic researchers talk about grant money, never once have I heard that the situation is good"

Make that 36 years -- the time I've been reading Nature, Science etc. on a weekly basis. Even the DOUBLING of NIH funding over 5 years only toned down the yelping slightly (which of course increased in fields not getting extra money because of the funds flowing to the NIH ).

The crack about farmers is true in my experience (having practiced in Montana) -- either there isn't enough rain or there is so much that they can't get into the fields to plow. If crops are good then there is an oversupply and more supports are demanded. If crops are poor than more supports are requested.

H. L. Mencken wrote about this 80 - 100 years ago, but I can't produce the exact source. The piece has the memorable phrase 'bathed in rhetorical vasoline' when describing the way farmers are spoken of in Congress.

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18. CMC guy on June 20, 2008 12:03 PM writes...

Counterview I actually agree with you to a degree although still think there is a place for the romanticized sub-plot. You state (correctly IMO)"Modern science and technology challenges more and more require critical mass and multi-disciplinary teams to address them." Even in teams and multi-discipline environments it often comes down to an individual insight or a sudden collective awakening (both usually out of fierce debates). I don't think there is a perfect or single model however places can get "too big" or be "too small" to effectively do R&D, although leadership can have much to do with focus and resources. Overly systematic or committee driven processes I think would generally inhibit Science rather than encourage progress in innovation. Guess I favor a touch of Anarchy as long as there are people around that can pick up the pieces and make something work.

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19. Biologist on June 20, 2008 1:37 PM writes...

"many, if not most, big advances in science today are emerging from organised research in substantial teams".

Utmost nonsense, Counterview. You're not a scientist. Nobel prize winning discoveries like PCR, RNA interference, protein ubiquitination, to name just a few, were all done by single researchers or small groups pursuing their own ideas and serendipitous findings.

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20. Wavefunction on June 20, 2008 3:27 PM writes...

The Manhattan Project is a rather unusual example because even though it was centrally managed, the scientists in it were given an unusual amount of freedom to pursue their ideas. In fact Oppenheimer deemed this necessary for productive results and managed to convince General Groves early on about it. Most government endeavors are not like this. Also, the Manhattan project naturally was driven by an urgent and unique situation which most government projects are not.
I do agree that the best research ideas are likely to come from free thinking individuals in small groups. In fact there was an article in Cell by cancer expert Robert Weinberg that lamented that the increasing infrastructure and size of research groups are stifling such creativity.
Cell 126, July 14, 2006, DOI 10.1016/j.cell.2006.06.022
The article's worth reading

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21. satan on June 20, 2008 4:37 PM writes...

Some central planing hack believes that teamwork is necessary for innovation. Let's look at the evidence..

Just a few examples that changes the world. Most of them are biased towards the first people that took the concept to fruition and were successfull

Machine guns- Gatling, Maxim
Aircrafts- Wrights
General and Special relativity- Einstein
Quantum mechanics- A few
Liquid Fueled Rockets- von Braun, Obel and a few
First computer (Binary+programing+scripts)- Zuse
First PCs (as we know them today)- A few at a Xerox lab
First commercial PCs- Jobs & Wozniak
First broad spectrum anti-microbial- Dogmak
First use of cytotoxic cancer chemotherapy- Goodman and a few
First P2P network(centralized)- Fanning (napster)

I could go on and on... but the truth is that central planning is based on human hubris (we know all) and the need to control. It is a peculiar religion- that is all I will say.

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22. Mark M on June 20, 2008 4:59 PM writes...

hailing from Dearborn, MI, I will add this to Satan's list:

cost-effective mass production of automobiles: Henry Ford

Ford was widely ridiculed as a fool for zealously pursuing this endeavor prior to it becoming a profitable venture.

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23. processchemist on June 21, 2008 1:20 AM writes...

Information technology, mathematics and theoretical physics are more open to "anarchy": you need little money to go on with your work.

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24. Peter Ellis on June 21, 2008 3:04 AM writes...

Nobel prize winning discoveries like PCR, RNA interference, protein ubiquitination, to name just a few, were all done by single researchers or small groups pursuing their own ideas and serendipitous findings.

True, to be sure. But does that say more about the sort of science that leads to discoveries, or the sort of discoveries that lead to Nobel prizes?

Just because there's a specific reward (a Nobel) that gets given to those who make "off the beaten track" discoveries, that doesn't mean that the beaten track isn't making plenty of good and worthwhile progress. It's not just possible to ascribe that progress to any one individual, so you can't award a prize for it.

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25. dearieme on June 21, 2008 8:48 AM writes...

If you wanted innovation, you wouldn't form the EU.

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26. Anonymous BMS Researcher on June 21, 2008 10:18 AM writes...

processchemist on June 21, 2008 1:20 AM wrote:

> Information technology, mathematics and
> theoretical physics are more open to "anarchy":
> you need little money to go on with your work.

One of the faculty posts Einstein held fairly early in his career was created in large part because for a professor of Theoretical Physics they would not need to find space for a laboratory, just an office.

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27. GACE on June 21, 2008 2:19 PM writes...

The point is that pushing quarterly profits and constantly trying to please investors is not going to encourage creativity and innovation. No wonder scientists are pissed off with management that is increasingly putting them into straitjackets imposed by deadlines and bottom lines; good research just does not work that way. Companies which want to do well in the long-term should give up this obsession with short-term gains. One of the reasons Lucent, Du Pont and IBM are not producing Nobel Prize winning research anymore is precisely because they are focusing too much on short-term goals and instant profits without giving scientific innovation the slow, nurturing environment that it needs to thrive.

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28. milkshake on June 21, 2008 8:40 PM writes...

Knowles work on asymmetrical hydrogenation started the whole field of asymmetrical catalysis, his was a relatively a long-shot project based on his own idea and he pursued it while at Monsanto - and it turned very profitable both for the man and the company. Knowles made inspired choices, his managers were enlightened enough to allow him to play with this and serendipity also played a major role (L-DOPA becoming so valuable at the same time).

It is not possible to direct this kind of research by a committe - you start with a an idea what you want to achieve and how long you will continue working on it to check its feasibility (in case nothing useful comes out) etc - and you should be able to chage your original priorities and take whathever unexpected results you get out of you research. The problem with committees is that they have their inetia and they love accounting-like check lists and flow charts. They are not driven by enthusiasm.

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29. Skeptic on June 21, 2008 9:13 PM writes...

Just more propaganda from Derek to serve his masters. May as expose the traitor for anyone who hasn't figured out the true purpose of this blog:

His free trade, trade liberalization, whatever you call it, economic ideology is rubbish and dishonest: he's shilling for a one world government brought on by the financialization of industry by the crooks at Wall St.

Naturally, his hatred towards academia is just more propaganda to feed the fools dumb enough to grant even more power to the vermin at the central bank.

The European Union? Oh boy, surely Derek will never say anything good bout them for obvious reasons.

And once in a while he even talks about chemistry to make it all seem koshure.

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30. CMC guy on June 22, 2008 3:32 PM writes...

To pick up the enthusiasm theme of #28 milkshake the best people in science, and pretty much any field, are typically fueled by a strong passion. Bureaucracies’, whether in form of government, large companies, departments or committees tend to suck the passion out of people. Working outside or around such impediments is necessary because passion can not be easily measured and factored well into decisions It can on occasion be nurtured and focused. I offer the analogy of Parents as can smother a child even though goal is assist in growth. At times you have to let a kid go even when it may means they don't follow the path as you would. Committees can be full of smart people who have forgotten the enthusiasm driver they once have. They may be honestly attempting guide however end up getting in the way.

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31. Wavefunction on June 22, 2008 5:22 PM writes...

I am guessing that one of the reasons for this problem is that many management people don't have a technical background, just MBAs. Maybe we need more people from a technical background in management who can empathize more with the people at the bench and computer.

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32. processchemist on June 23, 2008 3:12 AM writes...

>I am guessing that one of the reasons for this
>problem is that many management people don't have a
>technical background, just MBAs.

Sure. But it's possible to have a Steve Jobs-like CEO in the pharma big biz environment? Please don't even think about C***** G******* founder...

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33. Counterview on June 23, 2008 7:30 PM writes...

It's amazing how defensive and vitriolic academics can get when anyone questions their God-given right to access the public purse for their hobby science.

I know there are many examples where small groups of free thinking individuals have made scientific breakthroughs. But increasingly the modern-day challenges require a greater quantum of effort than the lone researcher can muster (let me repeat "modern-day challenges"… Wright brothers? give me a break).

Biologist (#19), I *am* a scientist but I've grown up. I no longer believe it when I see grant applications applying for funding for one postdoc and a few chemicals claiming to be going to cure cystic fibrosis or ovarian cancer. It's just fantasy. Would the human genome have been solved by 1000 biologists each with a $50K grant? I don't think so.

Look, I'm a supporter of spreading the grant-wealth around so lots of research training gets done in many areas. I think society benefits generally, and occasionally a scientific breakthrough will occur to propel technology. But when academics try to justify grants by claiming to be solving major challenges they are doing themselves no favours because everyone knows in most cases it's a lie. Take total synthesis of natural products... most papers and grants blather on about bioactivity (usually cytotoxicity against some cell line, big deal) and developing methodology for analogue synthesis. But analogues are rarely made and sometimes the natural product is available on large quantities from the natural source. So what is the true purpose of the work? The molecule looks cool and challenging and we wanted the first/best synthesis. So just be honest - natural product total synthesis is the molecular version of solving a Rubik's Cube. It's a great training ground for new researchers, it often leads to new methodology, but don't pretend it's addressing a major challenge in health.

Getting back to Theo Walliman's assertion "Almost every significant breakthrough in the history of science has come about by serendipity — not as a result of strategic planning or problem-oriented and directed research." … I suppose he hasn't heard of Thomas Edison.

If you want to understand the relationship between basic science and technological innovation past the all-too-common knee jerk approach I can highly recommend "Pasteur’s Quadrant: Basic Science and Technological Innovation", or read Donald Stokes piece on it here:

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34. satan on June 23, 2008 9:49 PM writes...

Counterview seems to have a severe case of hubris. The whole idea that teamwork produces great advances is based on equally peculiar assumptions.

1] Human beings are apolitical animals.
2] Competent people make funding decisions.
3] We know all there is to know.

The last one, 3], is by far the most limiting belief, as history has repeatedly tended to show the converse.

At one time respectable and intelligent oxford, cambridge, harvard educated "public opinion leaders" knew that tuberculosis in poor people was caused by insolent behaviour. They also knew that black men would never be great heavy weight boxers. They also believed that jewish people were mentally inferior and not capable of scientific research.

Rutherford believed that energy from splitting atoms was very unlikely. Until 1939 most scientists also believed that was the case. "Scientists" believed heavier-than-air flight was a fantasy. British rocketry experts did not believe than von Braun could develop a usable liquid fueled rocket. Few people in the 1960s could foresee that we could produce interferon and monoclonal antibodies on an industrial scale. How many of you anticipated the influence of the web, google, GPS, cell phones? What about gleevec and other kinase inhibitors?

To make a long story short, humans are incredibly bad at predicting the future. Therefore it is best to not dismiss ideas that seem weird or unconventional. Such ideas change our world much more than committee and team based ideas.

A few other examples-

Haber-Bosch process for nitrogen fixation, Fischer-Tropsch process for synthetic fuel production, Ulam-Teller design for the H-bomb, Norman Bourlag for the green revolution, kalashnikov for his AK-47 design.

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35. eugene on June 23, 2008 10:39 PM writes...

'"Scientists" believed heavier-than-air flight was a fantasy.'

I don't believe that one. How could anyone be so stupid as to not look outside the window and see some birds proving them wrong?

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36. Counterview on June 24, 2008 12:38 AM writes...

"How many of you anticipated … cell phones?"

Everybody who watched Star Trek.

I don't agree that those assumptions are remotely associated with the idea that teamwork produces great advances. You've produced a laundry list of where the conventional wisdom was later proved wrong in science and somehow used that to justify the success of lone scientists who buck the conventional wisdom. How long is the list of research by the lone scientist that went nowhere? A couple of anecdotes don't make a good argument.

There's still a place for "small" exploratory science, for sure. But don't kid yourself that it's going to compete, other than by blind chance, with large organised multi-discipline efforts.

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37. Jonadab on June 24, 2008 8:12 AM writes...

> It’s always bad, worse, getting worse,
> tight, terrible, year in and year out

This is, basically, the Fundamental Economic Problem: available funding is necessarily always finite, but people can always think up uses for infinite funding. There are always going to be more projects that *don't* get funded than there are ones that do. That'll be true no matter how much funding is available. (This principle has been known for centuries. See for instance Ecclesiastes, written some three millennia ago, around the middle part of chapter 5.)

Of course, with government funding for research, in a society with a representative government, the problem of who gets to decide how the money is spent is a thorny one. You can't let the scientists decide, because there's no enough funding to go around to all the things they'd decide to spend it on.

In the case of private donations, the donor either decides directly what to fund, or entrusts it to someone, who gets to decide. But with public funds, there's no donor. Well, in a sense the taxpayer is the donor, but asking the taxpayer what research projects to fund is... problematic. For one thing, the list of applicants, if you allow all the ones that want to be listed to be listed, would ultimately turn the tax forms (or the ballot, or whatever) into several shelf-feet (at least) of fine print. So somebody's got to at least narrow the list down, which is tantamount to deciding what gets funded, which puts us right back where we were: who gets to decide?

Letting a computer pick projects to fund at random won't work either, because it heavily favors whoever submits the largest number of proposals, totally irrespective of whether any thought was put into them. Spending no money at all would be better.

The committee approach is, as you point out, problematic in its own ways.

But I'm afraid I don't know of any better solution. I certainly don't know of a GOOD one.

Of course, it does matter who you put on the committee and, more to the point, how you decide who to put on the committee. Personally, I think that centralizing such things is counterproductive, and that it would be better to let the individual EU member nations each decide such things separately. Even if some of them decide badly, centralizing it is likely to work out worse in the long run.

(Yeah, that also means that in the US I'm in favor of letting the states do more of this kind of funding and the federal government do less of it. Which is not exactly a popular view, since most people hear the "do less" part and immediately assume I must hate science to even suggest such a terrible thing.)

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38. Paul F. Dietz on June 24, 2008 11:04 AM writes...

'"Scientists" believed heavier-than-air flight was a fantasy.'

There was a famous paper by Simon Newcomb that determined that aircraft propelled by steam engines would not be practical, since the power/weight ratio of steam engines is too low:

Quite likely the twentieth century is destined to see the natural forces which will enable us to fly from continent to continent with a speed far exceeding that of the bird.

But when we inquire whether aerial flight is possible in the present state of our knowledge; whether, with such materials as we possess, a combination of steel, cloth and wire can be made which, moved by the power of electricity or steam, shall form a successful flying machine, the outlook may be altogether different.

This was basically a correct conclusion. Internal combustion engines worked around the limit by providing higher specific power.

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39. satan on June 24, 2008 1:10 PM writes...

Paul- that is correct, but did you notice that he did not consider IC engines? Why? My guess- hubris.

Counterview- Conventional wisdom is almost always wrong. It is very hard to make accurate predictions about the future. A committee will almost always tend to make a consensus decision that satisfies everyone. Ever heard of group-think? Ever wonder why so many intelligent people are wrong about the future? Now do you want such people steering the future? even a drunken chimp could do a better job.

I am sorry to say to say that hubris, of the kind that led to the stagnation of chinese and indian civilizations in the past, has now infected the west. It will likely destroy western-european civilization, which may not be such a bad thing.

It all starts with an age of discovery, progress, prosperity,an increased wealth/power gap over other civilizations leading to self-confidence that degenerates into delusions. These delusions always take the form of -"we know all that there is to know", "we know best" or "we alone have a hotline to reality or god". They also start believing that no one other than "their kind" can create anything of value and everything that does not fit in their world view is false or worth ignoring.

These delusions are often maintained by group-think, committees, ritualistic behaviors and a disdain of the external world. Eventually they extinguish the very spark of creativity and non-conformity that made them great. However the rest of the world keeps moving on. These delusions eventually come up against reality and some other civilization runs them over and the clock is reset.

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40. Biologist on June 24, 2008 2:22 PM writes...

Counterview (#33 and #36) - Although you may be a 'grown-up' scientist, it seems you have no idea of how scientific breakthroughs arise from serendipitous findings. Only "a couple of anecdotes"? Please give me a break..

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41. Counterview on June 24, 2008 7:15 PM writes...

satan - Conventional wisdom is almost always wrong? If you think about that you will realise that conventional wisdom is actually almost always right, otherwise we would have died out as a species long ago. When people say that conventional wisdom (disparagingly referred to as group-think) is always wrong they are usually being blind-sided by the cognitive illusions of confirmation bias and the validity effect. Spectacular examples, like Art Fry inventing the "Post-It Note" at 3M despite management trying to kill off the project, become the stuff of legend and carry great weight around the scientists coffee table. But these stories merely bias thinking away from the many hundreds of other successful inventions from 3M that came about in the boring, structured, planned, Gantt-charted process we all know and hate.

We love to chortle about the tales of conventional wisdom gone wrong (In 1943, Thomas J. Watson, Chairman of IBM, stated I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." ha ha), but the reality is these are outliers on a system that actually works pretty well.

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42. eugene on June 24, 2008 10:24 PM writes...

"Paul- that is correct, but did you notice that he did not consider IC engines? Why? My guess- hubris."

He lived in the 19th Century. And IC engines were not ubiquitous at the time and were inefficient. The first working cars with them were built in the 1890s. Geez...

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43. satan on June 25, 2008 3:05 PM writes...

Hubris is not helpful in the long run.

And the newcomb quote is from 1901-1903. Well IC engines did exist then and were used in motorcycles and drigibles. A home-built motorcycle-like engine powered the wright bothers airplane.

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44. eugene on June 25, 2008 8:59 PM writes...

Yes, that all ubiquitous airplane that was flying all over the place in 1901. And the droves of people who drove cars in 1901. That's the same as if solar power becomes a real energy resource for the entire world 50 years from now, and you get to make fun of people who didn't predict it right now and said it would never replace fossil fuels because the current photovoltaic cells are not up to par.

Just stop thinking yourself much smarter and more humble than someone who died 100 years ago. You're not scoring too many karma points. Plus you're wrong.

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45. srp on June 26, 2008 4:35 AM writes...

You probably need an ecology of research groups of different sizes. Certainly capital intensity (telescopes, particle accelerators) leads to the need for large teams, but data analysis from such sources could conceivably be performed by much smaller groups. Theorists in physics often work in small groups or individually.

In terms of curiousity-driven science, I'm all for it, but I think there is some evidence that biomedical academics are way too slow to communicate across groups to take ideas forward toward producing medical treatments.

I read an article a few years ago in the Wall Street Journal about how private philanthropists were starting to impose data disclosure and cross-team collaboration as conditions to their grantees because they wanted a faster track from idea to development of treatement to testing. People were used to hoarding their data and slowly squeezing out series of papers from it. Their treatment-oriented benefactors were having none of it.

Many of the academics interviewed said that while it was a big adjustment, being forced to meet up and discuss things frankly with people in other labs with similar but different backgrounds was tremendously helpful. Networks of collaborating labs can do things without degenerating into bureaucratic committees if they have a clear focus in their research. So while I agree with Derek about the EU setting up giant committees, I don't think it is impossible to strucuture large-group collaborations in a bottom-up way to do great research.

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46. Jonadab on June 26, 2008 6:06 AM writes...

> Hubris is not helpful in the long run.

It can be, but only if you combine it with impatience and laziness. HTH.HAND.

(Hmmm. I suppose, this not being a particularly computer-technology-oriented forum, that I should explain that the above is a reference to the creation of Perl, one of the first (arguably the first) of the very-high-level programming languages (sometimes called "scripting languages"); languages of this type have now pretty much completely taken over for certain kinds of programming tasks. Larry Wall has indicated that without hubris, he could not have believed himself qualified to begin work on such an ambitious project; without impatience, he would have just waited for someone else to do it; without laziness, he wouldn't have felt the need to create such a tool, the basic purpose of which is to save the programmer time and effort. Granted, the laziness factor may not directly apply to a science like chemistry in quite the same way.)

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47. Fritz Saether on January 7, 2013 4:25 PM writes...

There is noticeably a lot to know about this. I consider you made certain good points in features also.

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