The out-of-left-field kind of science

The newly-appointed head of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the richest privately endowed funding agency in the US, on how in terms of productive scientific creativity, small efforts of passion may contribute more than better-funded and -planned big projects. (Which is not to say, I’d assume, that a given passion project is more likely to succeed; just that the successful project is often one driven by passion).

It’s hard to be sure whether the big science projects — which can take a significant percentage of the funding from the NIH, for example — are ultimately going to be as productive as typical investigator-initiated science projects. My own view is that what’s consistently propelled American scientific success has been individual, investigator-initiated science projects. I don’t imagine that will change too much. That’s not to say that the larger projects — for example, the genome-sequencing projects — are not worth it. Obviously, some of them are. Some people will be motivated by pursuing the X Prize to try things that they never would have done otherwise. A certain number of these catalytic events are really worth it. But I tend to favor the creative and individually masterminded, out-of-left-field kind of science, which often ends up being the most transformative. I’m confident that much of the truly original ideas come from people doing things that they are passionate about and then stumbling onto something completely unexpected. Certainly, the biological field is strewn with examples of great discoveries — absolutely revolutionary discoveries — that came out of seemingly trivial things. It’s not very often that big science leads you to true innovation in the sense of novel discoveries.

from “Questions for Robert Tjian,” by Greg Boustead,, 16 November 2008

Originally published at

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