The late Peter Medawar once wrote about resources and funding in research, and pointed out something that he thought did a lot more harm than good: various romantic anecdotes of people making do with ancient equipment, of great discoveries made with castoffs and antiques. While he didn’t deny that these were possible, and admitted that you had to do the best with what you had, he held that (1) this sort of thing was getting harder every year as science advanced, and (2) while it was possible to do good work under these conditions, it surely wasn’t desirable.
His most interesting point was that lack of equipment ends up affecting the way that you think about your research. It’s not like people with insufficient resources sit around all day thinking of experiments that they can’t run and can’t analyze. If you know, in the back of your mind and in your heart, that there’s no way to do certain experiments, then you won’t even think about them. Your brain learns to censor out such things. This limits your ability to work out the consequences of your hypotheses, and could cause you to miss something important.
Imagine, say, that you’re working on some idea that requires you to find very small amounts of different compounds in a final mixture. A good LC/MS machine would seem to be the solution for that, but what if you don’t have access to one? You can spend a lot of time thinking about a workaround, which is mental effort that could (ideally) be better applied elsewhere. And if you had the LC/MS at your disposal, you might be led to start thinking about the fragmentation behavior of your compounds or the like, which could lead you to some new ideas or insights – ones that you wouldn’t have if you’d had to immediately cross off the whole area.
If you’re in a resource-limited situation, then, you’ll probably try to carefully pick out problems that can actually be well addressed with what you have. That’s a good strategy, but it’s not always a possible one. Huge areas of research can be marked off-limits by the lack of key pieces of equipment, and by the time you’ve worked out what’s possible, there may not be anything interesting or important left inside your fence. Medawar’s point was that being stuck inside such a perimeter would not only hurt the way that you did your work, but could eventually do damage to the way that you thought.
It occurs to me that this is similar to George Orwell's claim in "Politics and the English Language" that long exposure to cheap, misleading political rhetoric could damage a person's ability to think clearly. "But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought". There may be other connections between Orwell's points and scientific thinking. . .definitely a subject for a future post.
In fairness, I should mention that the flip side of this situation isn’t necessarily the best situation, either. Having everything you need at your disposal can make some researchers very productive – and can make others lazy. Everyone has stories of beautifully appointed labs that never seem to turn out anything interesting. There’s danger in that direction, too, but it’s of a different kind. . .