He's sent along a very interesting commentary, which I'm going to post in two parts. Today is on what EU research funding is like, and tomorrow it'll be on what it could (or should) be. So here's Dr. Wallimann with a report from the field:
I did by no means intend to say that important findings can only be made by lone wolf scientists, but wanted to say that if (and I am talking here about basic science, not industrial applied science), small groups are left to work independently, with passion, in the realm of those things that interest them from the inside of their spirit and heart, then the chances of making an unexpected finding are statistically much higher - compared to a granting agency telling you what topics should be worked on in order to qualify for funding.
Once an important finding in basic science has been made, it is relatively easy to find partners and to build up from the bottom a collaborative interdisciplinary team, even up to Manhattan Project-like applications. The latter step is mostly a matter of finances, for one knows what has to be done, since the basic findings and ground-work has been done by the basic scientists.
It is fact that the EU agencies (and probably most of the research funding agencies) want to see such interdisciplinary research networks even before any novel findings have been made. They tend to focus on relevant societal problems, like cancer, obesity, climate change, etc. And this is bloody ridiculous, for this encompasses only (or mostl) those scientists who just happen to work in these areas and who may happen to be excellent or mediocre. But it excludes other groups, mostly younger ones, who may not directly work on such a topic, but whose findings may turn out to be most important for them in the future.
What I would like to stress fervently is that true science is not predictable. If you already know what you want to find out it is no longer truly innovative science: this is exactly what Albert Einstein meant (and explicitly said), and what Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, the archetype of a "Free Radical", said as well. The latter Nobelist (for Vitamin C and on muscle contraction) never received substantial research money from NIH, for he refused to write a 50 page grant proposal exactly delineating and spelling out what he wanted to do during the next 3-5 years. He said, "How can I say what I am going to do in the laboratory in 3-5 years, if I don't even know today what I shall do there tomorrow".
I have been working in an "enforced" consortium of a EU program with a total of 26 laboratories Europe-wide. The sheer size of the consortium, with all of its members focusing on different aspects of the same global question, apparently seems to have been the most convincing argument for the EU administrators The program was substantially funded and we all profited indeed from this financial support, although the administration and book-keeping and report-writing efforts were horrendous. However, as it turned out, when the members met and got acquainted and divided into sub-groups (so-called “work-packages”), one had to realize relatively quickly that one was sitting on a table with competitors who worked on the very same problems as oneself. And example would be wanting to grow crystals of an important enzyme to solve its X-ray structure and from there, to design inhibitors or activators for pharmacological intervention.
So my question now is: how are you going to communicate in such a group? Which of your secrets that would give an advantage to the competitors are you going to spell out? Which hints does your neighbor disclose to you? And so on. This fact led to some rather awkward situations where people were sort of lingering around the real questions and problems and all tried to talk about those results that had just been accepted in a publication and were to be in press very soon. So here is the situation, we were forced to officially "collaborate" by the EU program, in order to get at the EU research financial honey-pot. But once we had the money, we would rather have preferred to work independently again and not share bench data with competitors.
By contrast, if the EU would foster independent smaller groups and if one then made an important finding, they themselves could go out and look for ideal collaboration partners on the spot without any granting agency telling them what to do and whom to consider. This gives a project a real kick-off, since such partners can be specifically selected for mutual compatibility and collaboration. Certainly, they would have to be as passionate as the original about the new finding and call in some other colleagues who would complete a strong team. Finally, such self-organization leads to true potentiation, but desktop planners can definitely not enforce this, I am convinced.
I was participating yet in another consortium program that was overshadowed by its own so-called steering committee. They felt responsible for the success of this program, so they started to strongly interfere and prescribe to us what to do, out of anxiousness that something unpredictable could happen. This simply shut down any possible creative outcome for this program.
As mentioned above, if a basic science program is successful in finding something really novel and important, only then can a "Manhattan Project"-like application of the basic research lead to an applied mega-project.
Many of the commenters here seem to have a misconception about the difference between basic science versus a Manhattan Project. I hope that this helps to clarify some of these issues, and I wish that you could come to work in a basic research laboratory for at least 10 years. You could easily grasp then what I mean to say here, I think. Thanks for your consideration and patience.