Genomic Repairman, it seems, is a fanboy of NCI Director Harold Varmus. Recently the flames of the professional crush were fanned when Varmus commented on the importance of “small science”. In The Cancer Letter, Varmus is paraphrased/quoted, saying:
Although “big science” and “mega-teams” have a role, “we have to remember that the great achievements of science have almost always begun with an individual scientist—a lone explorer—working in his or her lab, having an unexpected idea. This in an essential precept to remain faithful to if we are going to retain the stature of the NCI, the NIH, and American science.”
I always have been against big science. I think it’s mostly a waste of money and all the history of science shows us that it never leads to the attempted goal… I thought we are supposed to start with the question and then try to answer the question. But these genomics centers–and genomics, in general–“OK, let’s sequences. We are powerful… Let’s see what the comparisons show.” There is no design in anything.
I was just in Stockholm for the 200th anniversary of the Karolinska Institute. The first presentation was about the many achievements the decoding of the genome has brought. Then I spoke and said that this century will be remembered for how little, and not how much, happened in this field… we have, in truth, learned nothing from the genome other than probabilities.
So what does this lowly postdoc think about mega-science?
I don’t think we can say we’ve learned nothing from mega-science initiatives, but it is reasonable to ask whether how much we’ve learned is truly commensurate with the amount of money poured into the projects. If we consider a 10-year span, then the answer is likely a resounding “no”. But I also think we’re at a point in science where advancements in experimental techniques have outstripped our ability to analyze and comprehend the data, almost strictly because of the sheer quantity of data generated. Maybe in another 10 or 20 or 50 years, we’ll be able to make more sense of it. But even then, I would argue, the true breakthroughs are still going to come from individuals or small groups testing hypotheses. We may have more sophisticated ways and information for generating those hypotheses, but it will still come down to going to the bench to answer a very specific, very focused question. Does that mean the NIH and other funding agencies should abandon mega-science altogher? Probably not, but we do need to temper our expectations of such projects and take the long view to determine their true value.