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CAUT Bulletin Archives

February 2008

Give Great Intellects Room to Roam

By Vern Paetkau
Let's not lose sight of those scientists who pursue important questions with single-minded determination, driven by relentless curiosity, says Vern Paetkau.
Let's not lose sight of those scientists who pursue important questions with single-minded determination, driven by relentless curiosity, says Vern Paetkau.
A theme reverberating through the halls of the modern university is the importance of research that is either interdisciplinary, large-scale, or practical — ideally, all three. Kudos and bonuses lure scientists out of their silos (that they moved to after they left their ivory towers, apparently) and encourage them to link up with those of disparate interests and disciplines, or a big pot of research money, or industry. The day of the singly-disciplined scientist doggedly pursuing his or her little problem in single-minded fashion is over.

Today our mandate is to create enormous datasets, datasets so large only the newest computers can handle them, datasets that will be mined for hidden treasure in the decades to come (or, for the next two months, anyway). Unless you are part of a larger effort exploring not only the weak forces holding the nucleus together, but also their sociological context and the economic outcomes should they fail, you are so 20th century. No grant for you.

An expression I heard while visiting a lab in Britain years ago, used in commenting on styles of scientific research, went this way: “Americans say, don’t just stand there, do something. We Brits say, don’t just do something, stand there.” I took that to mean standing around and thinking about scientific problems, not just rushing about generating data in order to apply for ever bigger grants, had merit.

This is borne out by scientific achievements in my own field, biochemistry. Whereas the United States produced wondrous discoveries in biomedical research over the past 60 years by dint of intense effort and massive bucks, in addition to the brilliance of its scientists, Britain and the rest of Europe have often shown their lower-keyed, less frenetic pace can lead to equally important results.

In 1987, part of the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology went to Dr. Susumo Tonegawa, who had determined, in just a few short years in the 1970s, the nature of the genetic rearrangements that give rise to immunoglobulin molecules. Dr. Tonegawa was at the Basel Institute for Immunology, well-endowed to be sure, but himself working with a fairly small group of colleagues, as was the philosophy of the Institute.

His work was brilliantly illuminating and was possible only because Tonegawa had understood the significance of an incoming wave of new technology, including the discovery of restriction enzymes, and surfed it to success. For this revolutionary new model of genetic functioning he was rewarded by, inter alia, a Nobel Prize and a professorship at MIT, where his resources were probably several-fold larger than at Basel. But his most important discovery came about as the result of a single-minded curiosity about a critical question, in the company of a small, focused group of colleagues.

We live in the age of “translational research” in medical science. We know a great deal; now it’s time to put it to use providing human benefit. No argument there. But it’s worth looking to see just where some of the greatest medical benefits have their roots.

If back in the early 1980s you had wanted to develop better treatment for ulcers, you had at least two options. You might have joined any of a large number of studies on variations of the common treatment modalities, essentially all dealing with the primary role of excess stomach acid as the basis of ulcers. Or, if you had greater prescience than just about every gastroenterologist in the world, you might have looked over the shoulders of two medical scientists work-­ing in Western Australia. Dr. Robin Warren, a path­ologist, and a young medical trainee, Barry Marshall, were curious about an unusual, and poorly-identified spiral microorganism they observed in essentially all gastric biopsies of ulcer patients. Their observations led them to the radical proposal that these bacteria, subsequently identified as Helicobacter pylori, were the primary causative agents of ulcers. Ulcers are an infectious disease!

The story of how this initially-ridiculed notion achieved the status of the new paradigm, using means that included self-administration of the bacteria to prove that they initiated gastritis, is a fascinating one, illustrating the power of curiosity-oriented research to change our understanding of the natural world. But it went further than that, for today antibiotics cure people of ulcers, a radical, practical outcome that would never have been predicted. You want change? Give great minds and restless intellects room to roam.

By all means, we should recognize and reward those who push back the frontiers of knowledge as a part of a linked chain of differently-disciplined colleagues. And participation in projects with budgets of seven or more figures is also to be admired. We recognize that some areas of inquiry depend on this kind of approach. But let’s not lose sight of the importance of those who pursue important questions with single-minded determination, driven by relentless curiosity.

Why this matters is that universities, together with research institutes and hospitals, are almost the only places where curiosity-oriented research can occur. Private industry and government agencies generally have other agendas than satisfying someone’s curiosity. If the universities, for any reason, don’t engage in and encourage this kind of activity, it won’t happen. And we will be the poorer.

To quote Arthur Kornberg, winner of the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology in 1959: “Does the public know that it is a good investment to support the whimsy of people who are curious about facts in nature? If you ask people, would they provide their tax dollars for medical research, 75 or 80 per cent say yes. Frame the question a little differently: Major medical discoveries have been derived from the pursuit of curiosity of physicists, chemists and biologists. Would you provide tax dollars for them to pursue their curiosity about facts in nature? . . . Maybe 10 or 20 per cent would say yes.

“My mission has been to cite chapter and verse as to how the drugs they are taking, the procedures they use — the MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), the X-rays, everything else that they consider essential for their health — derives from such apparently irrelevant pursuit of curiosity. And still the response the next day by them or their legislative representative is, ‘Hey, we’ve got AIDS; we’ve got cancer; we’ve got this or that disease. We can’t afford to divert our limited budget, more stringent than ever, to support someone working on grasshoppers.’ Or as Clinton said, ‘I’m not going to approve of grants to work on stress in plants.’ Had he just thought about it one second more, he could have said, Isn’t it important that we cope with stress in plants — drought, disease, excessive moisture, lack of fertilizer?”1 And also:

“No matter how counter-intuitive it may seem, basic research is the lifeline of practical advances in medicine and pioneering inventions are the source of industrial strength. The future is not predicted, it is invented.” 2

I wish I had said that.


Vern Paetkau is Professor Emeritus of the University of Victoria.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily CAUT.

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