Today I have the second part of the guest commentary from Zurich's Dr. Theo Wallimann on research funding in Europe. Today he advances his proposal for a new way of funding young scientists:
The definite proof that European Research Programs (such as the FP-6 and FP-7 Framework Programs) are not the sort that basic scientists regard as most useful is the fact that one has to indicate and list so-called "Deliverables". These are research results or products that one wants to or should achieve in the given time period, e.g. being able to express a protein at high levels in bacteria, (Deliverable 1), to purify it to high purity (Deliverable 2) to characterize it by biochemical and biophysical methods (Deliverable 3) and then try to crystallize this protein in order to produce X-ray compatible protein crystals (Deliverable 4).
One then has to provide yearly reports and let the reviewers know whether the goals set were achieved and met in time and whether one could "deliver" as predicted. If one meets one's own prognosis, one is considered a very good scientist who is able to meet one’s Deliverables. In other words, being able to deliver exactly what was predicted is considered good science, at least by the bureaucrats.
But anyone working in the fields of protein crystallization and X-ray crystal structure solving, for example, knows very well that protein crystallization is still an art which often needs a stroke of luck to get good crystals for X-ray studies. This can literally take years, guided first by brute force screening approaches, and if this does not work by intuition and perseverance. All of a sudden, out of the blue, one may be able to grow crystals once, but they sometimes never come again, even if you repeat the experiment under the very same conditions. In those cases you may find out that something subtle has changed, e.g. the battery of the distilled water apparatus was changed and the water quality was thus somewhat different, etc.
I know of an incident where a long, flexible protein should have been crystallized, but many doctoral students and post-docs could not manage to get crystals. After a year or so, a new post-doc came to the lab and started the project from scratch. However, he realized that his predecessors had left many crystallization trials in multi-well plates in the cold room. They must have stayed there for years, some were murky, even greenish and bacteria or algae must have grown in them. The new post-doc could have gotten rid of these murky old plates, but he was smart and clever enough to take his time to look at them.
Lo and behold, he saw crystals in some of them. He opened the micro-chambers with crystals in them, but saved the mother liquor and the buffer drop in which the crystals had grown. Be honest now, how many of you would have done such a thing? But this turned out to be absolutely crucial, for the bacteria or algae that grew in the protein solution drop and mother liquor produced a protease enzyme, which cut the long protein strand somewhere at its most flexible site. The rest of the protein then crystallized. Although this was a somewhat truncated form of the protein in question, the structure of this core could be solved and years later it was the basis for solving the whole protein structure. Why was it so important to save the supernatant and mother liquor? The post-doc cultivated the bacteria or algae, I don't remember exactly, and purified from them the very protease that was cutting the protein at the specific site, such that it then crystallized.
With this tool (the peculiar protease) at hand, he could reproduce what he had seen at first, and was rewarded with protein crystals which otherwise would not have seen at all. I think this is a very nice example of a) serendipity but also of b) a smart experimenter who reacted very cleverly and used foresight in formulating hypothesis that he then could prove to be true.
Would you ever state in a EU funding proposal that you plan to grow protein crystals by letting a protein solution stand around in a messy cold room, in hopes that the right bacteria would grow and nibble the protein’s flexible loop off so that the rest of the protein would crystallize? You would blatantly be considered as totally crazy, I would predict. But this episode took place in the 1980s, not back in Marie Curie’s or Pasteur's time, and similar events can and will happen today.
But such considerations are not a concern of the EU functionaries. They want to see the crystals, especially if you told them you would deliver them in a year or two. This is science on deliverables, as one may call it. But it has nothing to do with daily work in a laboratory. Therefore, as some have pointed out, the administrators should be educated scientist themselves, ones who have worked for a few years in a real laboratory environment. I think this would improve things quite a lot.
My proposition for EU research funding would therefore be: give young PhD investigators (after their post-doctoral training and after meeting various quality standards) no-strings-attached research support for 5 years. In this way they can demonstrate their talent and independence by doing what they like to do, as best they can. If after this time their work stands out, support is then generously extended for another 3-5 years.
After that, the tenure decision has to be made, and those not fulfilling the criteria (to be determined) will leave academia. This would give young people an excellent start-up chance – perhaps then there would be fewer people accumulating in academia who were promised promotions that might be delayed and postponed. (In many of these cases, all of a sudden these researchers are then considered "too old" and fall out of the system completely).
This generous scheme is of course risky, for some money will not be spent the best way it could have been. But on the other hand this will allow the really talented young researchers to thrive and take off for their Nobel PriZe ambitions. So, let’s simplify the granting bureaucracy by being much more generous, while trusting in peoples’ ability to self-organize to meet their challenges and perform. In the end it is not bookkeeping that will count, but the really great and innovative research results that bring humanity a step further along. Why shouldn’t we be prepared to take this risk? I am afraid, though, that my scheme would leave thousands and thousands of desktop offenders unemployed. . .