March 3, 2017

Less is More?

Some readers may wonder why nobody at Eagle wrote anything about the US Supreme Court ruling that human DNA cannot be patented. I did consider it, but despite being an obvious subject for a quick blog article there was mostly nothing I could add to what was already public. However one meeting I had with a potential customer this morning highlighted the major loophole in the ruling: that although naturally occurring DNA cannot be patented, it is still possible to patent something created artificially - even if all the source material is still natural. This is not an issue really in current human research but is a big thing in the plant world. The ruling leaves open the possibility that an organism can be modified to include a naturally occurring gene from another organism thus making the entirety of the target organism an artifical creation by technical definition, and thus patentable, even though all the genes within it are from natural sources. So it is interesting that a ruling designed to prevent patents being taken out on human DNA does nothing to prevent patents being taken out on plant or animal genes in the right circumstances.

But, this is not what I came to write about this evening. Rather my subject was something more prosaic and practical in nature: how much money should funding agencies give out, and to who? I'm referring to a recent article in Plos ONE where the first line of the abstract asks: "Agencies that fund scientific research must choose: is it more effective to give large grants to a few elite researchers, or small grants to many researchers?".

The paper argues at length about the pros and cons of making a few large grants vs. lots of small grants. Whilst the paper ostensibly focuses on grant size vs. impact factor, it implicitly questions the drivers of scientific creativity and whether there really could be an untapped multiplicity of ideas being generated by a multitude of new, novel thoughts from fresh, free-thinking researchers.

On the surface, a model that dishes out small grants to test multiple ideas must surely result in a greater number of ideas being taken forward to more in-depth study and therefore result in a greater number of steps forward in scientific progress. A model that only rewards the already-successful with ever-larger grants to keep on researching the same old ideas without injecting any fresh blood will only result in a reinforcement of existing paradigms and a much slower crawl towards genuine innovation.

Or... it could also be argued that small grants are never big enough to ever investigate any idea in sufficient depth to draw real conclusions about its suitability for further investigation, so distributing many small portions of research cash will create a flurry of weakly-evidenced hypotheses. Whilst larger grants give senior scientists the ability to hire a greater number of junior staff to work on their projects, increasing the talent pool and therefore increasing the exposure of science to new ideas through the greater pool of minds working together.

As is always the case in these things, the answer is balance (the fence I am sitting on after writing so many blog articles that come to this conclusion must now be several metres in height!). Too many large grants will indeed stifle genuine innovation - major institutions and famous names benefit at the expense of young fresh blood. Too many small ones will mean nothing ever gets the chance to be investigated in-depth and proven beyond doubt. Funding agencies must therefore distribute their funds with the entrepreneurial flair of a venture capitalist, allowing small risky projects to take baby steps forward if they look interesting whilst simultaneously hedging their position with donations to the sure-bet projects of established investigators.

(Incidentally, the most interesting point the paper makes is that the positivity of peer review feedback at the grant awarding stage bears almost no correlation at all to high impact factors when the resarch is eventually published... food for thought!)

Topics: artificial DNA, Bioinformatics, Eagle, Human DNA patent, Human Genomes, naturally occuring DNA, Plant DNA