Lots has been written about how modest long term funding of those worked with their own hands at the bench underpinned the revolution that occurred in biology in the mid twentieth century. Think of Sakmann, Brenner, Watson and Crick (broad definition of a bench), and Hubel and Wiesel. I also think it is true of much clinical science (but not those dreaded mega trials ….). Sadly, much modern science is done by mini-chief executives who shift paper. It is not entirely their fault either. I once worked in a large science factory, and it was only then that I understood what the term alienation really meant, or what Marx was really on about (‘Intellectual capitalism’). David Hubel wrote a piece not so long ago setting out what we needed to do to shift back to what we know worked very well. Most of the masters who benefit from the status quo will of course not rush to embrace it. Funding young people to follow their own path—rather than acting as serfs for others till their late thirties or even early forties (average age of first main NIH grant)— will not be universally popular. (Nor is it suitable for all of science).
Fred Sangers’s death suggests to me that we should measure the funding a scientist receives relative to how much Sanger received. It might bring a breath of realism into what we do. So, his modest funding, provides the base of 1. If you receive 1.5 FSU if means you receive annually 50% more than he received. You can average it out over the years. The higher your FSU score, the more people who give you money, should wonder about what they are paying for. Better still, they might wonder if they can find another Sanger instead. Of course, we have to think about what you do with it, but before sorting that issue out (it’s trivial honest!), applicants have to answer why their need for funding is greater than that which Fred Sanger required. Are these extra people and experiments that good? Perhaps even great universities should start boasting about how low their average FSU scores are.
[here is Sydney Brenner in Science on Sanger]
A Fred Sanger would not survive today’s world of science. With continuous reporting and appraisals, some committee would note that he published little of import between insulin in 1952 and his first paper on RNA sequencing in 1967 with another long gap until DNA sequencing in 1977. He would be labeled as unproductive, and his modest personal support would be denied. We no longer have a culture that allows individuals to embark on long-term—and what would be considered today extremely risky—projects.
And the old definition of a genius: somebody who had at least two great ideas.