Don’t worry, Fred Sanger, you’d be fine! Today’s science ain’t that bad after all

Fred Sanger (1918 – 2013) [Photo: Huffington Post]

Science is never at rest. Questions develop. Technologies improve. Research practice changes. If you have spent your whole life in science you might look up from your desk one day and find the scientific world around you changed beyond all recognition. The days of your youth are gone and so are some of the ways to do science that you were used to.

This feeling of disconnect must be the reason for Sydney Brenner’s bleak outlook on Fred Sanger’s chances to have a scientific career today. In a retrospective on Sanger, who died last year, Brenner wrote in Science a few months ago:

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. (Brenner 2014)

It’s always easy to say ‘the old days were better’, especially when most of the audience can’t remember them.

Luckily, Stanley Fields from UWash, who has worked with Sanger, takes a closer look at the question how well Sanger might do in today’s science and how `unproductive’ Sanger really has been.

In the current issue of Genetics, Fields points out that Sanger’s breakthroughs were prepared in a series of papers that document his steady progress over time. So Brenner was wrong to say Sanger ‘had published little of import’ in between major papers. Fields comes to a conclusion quite different from Brenner’s:

Fred Sanger was a remarkable scientist who left a legacy of superlative achievements that continued throughout his career, not punctuated brilliant insights interspersed with long periods of reflection and inactivity.

Regardless of the vagaries of current NIH peer review, Sanger would have flourished with these achievements. (Fields 2014; my emphasis)

The genius versus the collaborative consortium

This discussion reminds me of what Peter Higgs claimed in the Guardian in December 2013: “I wouldn’t be productive enough for today’s academic system“. He doubts that work like the Higgs boson identification are achievable now as academics are expected to ‘keep churning out papers’ instead of diligently pursuing hard problems.

These doubts resonate with many people and the Higgs and Brenner articles have been circulated widely, often with a comment like ‘So sad!’ or ‘Look what has become of science’.

Fields speculates on the reasons for this reaction:

But in our fears that even a Sanger [or a Higgs, I might add] might no longer be fundable, are we also expressing a wistfulness that the days of the lone scientific genius might be gone?

In an era of large collaborations, multi-authored papers, and enormous datasets, is there still room for the single creative idea that proves to be a game-changer? (Fields 2014)

I am not sure this contrast between large collaborations and single creative ideas is very helpful. I agree with Jeff Leek, who wrote on Simply Statistics:

[Higgs] got the prize, at least in part, because of the people who conceived/built/tested the theory in the Large Hadron Collider.

I’m much more inclined to believe someone would have come up with the Boson theory in our current system than someone would have built the LHC in a system without competitive pressure.

The same is true for Sanger’s achievements: I am much more inclined to believe someone would have come up with sequencing technology in our current system than someone would have sequenced the Human genome (which was a huge collaborative effort) in a system without competitive pressure.

So maybe science today ain’t that bad after all.

And in 50 years, when I am Brenner’s age, I will look back wistfully at the science of 2014 and complain loudly and to everybody that it has all been down-hill since then.

That’s life.


3 thoughts on “Don’t worry, Fred Sanger, you’d be fine! Today’s science ain’t that bad after all

  1. A clarification in response to a comment I received off-line:

    I don’t want to get into a `big science versus small science’ debate. In particular I didn’t mean to imply that Sanger’s achievements had to be validated in any way by a big consortium. They were game-changers already before the Human Genome Project.

    What I reacted to in my post is what I see as a unhelpful glorification of days gone by. There was pressure to publish and get grants then just as there is today, so I don’t see why should romanticise too much. Great things were done 50 years ago and great things are being done now (I think) – even if the ways they are being done is different.


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