“Big science” in the balance

Bill Snyder
Published: January, 2009

Lawrence Marnett, Ph.D.
Photo by Joe Howell
While the federal government funds the lion’s share of biomedical research in the United States, there is concern that a predilection for “big science” projects may actually weaken rather than strengthen the potential for discovery.

“I agree that we need better integrated science, but not the type of ‘big science’ that we've seen from NIH in the past decade,” says Lawrence Marnett, Ph.D., director of the Vanderbilt Institute of Chemical Biology.

“The Genome Project was a big science project that has paid dividends and will pay dividends over the long run, but many of the other projects that came about in the afterglow of its success are poor shadows.

“What we need is more communication between people doing complementary work so that they focus on critical common goals with a percentage of their efforts,” Marnett says.

“There is no one solution and definitely, in my humble view, ‘big science’ is not THE answer,” agrees Randy Blakely, Ph.D., director of the Vanderbilt Center for Molecular Neuroscience. “Big science… can become totalitarian, wasteful and misguided, just like any large enterprise when it is seen as the only way to go.

Randy Blakely, Ph.D.
Photo by Dean Dixon
“Nothing in my view will beat the creativity of individuals empowered with sufficient resources to explore biology and medicine’s problems.”

In his 2007 book, “Happy Accidents: Serendipity in Modern Medical Breakthroughs,” Morton Meyers, M.D., wrote that many advances in biomedical science come not from a “predetermined research path” or from a committee, “but from an individual, a maverick who views a problem with fresh eyes.”

“Serendipity will strike and be seized upon by a well-trained scientist or clinician who also dares to rely upon intuition, imagination, and creativity,” Meyers asserted. “Unbounded by traditional theory, willing to suspend the usual set of beliefs, unconstrained by the requirement to obtain approval or funding for his or her pursuits, this outsider will persevere and lead the way to a dazzling breakthrough.”

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