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RESEARCH GRANTS ALBERT SZENT-GYÖRGYI* This country owes its greatness equally to the wealth of its natural resources as to the spirit of its pioneers. This pioneer spirit has penetrated also its biomedical research and led to its wonderful successes. Research means going out into the unknown, which demands a pioneering spirit. This spirit is now strangled by the way in which the main federal biomedical granting agency, the National Institutes of Health, distributes its grants. The unknown is the unknown because one does not know what is there. If one knows what one will do and find in it, then it is not research any more and is not worth doing. The NIH wants detailed projects, wants the applicants to tell exactly what they will do and find during the tenure of their grants, which excludes unexpected discoveries on which progress depends. No doubt there are important problems which can be outlined in advance, as, for instance, the establishment of the sequence of amino acids in a protein, but the understanding of degenerative diseases, like cancer, muscular dystrophy, or schizophrenia, which is stagnant, waits for unexpected discoveries. Scientific research is, in many ways, related to art. If one wants good music to be produced, one looks for a good musician and not for a project. Projects have no meaning and value anyway, because there are only two kinds of science: good and bad. Good science is made by good scientists, poor science by poor scientists, and the most brilliant project is worthless in the hands of a poor scientist, while, conversely, a good scientist has a good chance to come up with something valuable whatever he touches, because "die Welt rundet sich im Tautropfen" (Goethe), which could be translated by saying that all the great laws of nature are represented in a drop of dew. Pasteur went to Germany to study brewing beer and came home with the discovery of optical isomerism. It is easy to find good scientists, because the good scientists are mostly those who have produced good science. Find them and support them, enable them to work. That's all there is to it. Don't torture them with senseless projects. ?Laboratory of the Institute for Muscle Research, Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, Massachusetts 02543. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine · Autumn 1974 | 41 The objection can be raised that granting according to past achievement would cut out the young scientists who have had no chance yet to prove themselves. This is true, and special ways have to be found to discover them. There are ways to do so, but the need to find special methods for the case of beginning scientists is no excuse for torturing and paralyzing those who have already shown their worth. Nobo,dy can reallyjudge the value of another fellow's project. Projects are nonsense. I don't think that any of the great discoveries were ever made by projects. They were made by intuition. And who should judge whom? This is a very difficult question, and I would like to point out its difficulty by a story. Many years ago I applied for a big grant from a private foundation. My request was granted. Some time later, one of the directors of that foundation told me the following: "There was something queer about your application. Not being scientists, if such a great request is made, we ask opinions from a number of outside scientists, and mostly we get a uniform answer. In your case half of them answered , 'Give him everything he asks for.' The other half advised, 'Not a penny!' This was so striking that we inquired into the scientists who gave their opinion and found that the 'yes' ones were all leading scientists, the 'nos' were otherwise." But even if committees were composed solely of top scientists, this would be no assurance of avoiding mistakes. Of the four major discoveries I made myself, two were immediately rejected by leading scientists of the field. It is natural that this should be so, because a discovery is a discovery because it is at variance with accepted knowledge . It was not always as it is today. When I applied for the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-8795
Print ISSN
0031-5982
Pages
pp. 41-43
Launched on MUSE
2015-01-07
Open Access
No
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