LC: I also wanted to pick your brain a little bit about the funding justifications for some research projects. There’s a famous Sarah Palin quote where she criticized fruit fly research. You’ve admitted before that you didn’t go into the Heidelberg Screen experiment knowing that a Nobel Prize would come out of it or that human applications would follow. I study riboswitches and I imagine my PI has to say a lot “These have potential applications in antibiotics” but really sometimes I think he just really likes the science of the RNA world.
EFW: He better!
LC: Do you think “This is interesting biology” is sufficient research justification?
EFW: It’s a problem. It’s other peoples’ money we spend, and I think it’s not up to us so much to decide as the other people. People who have jobs that aren’t so exciting and look forward to five o’clock and being able to go home, they pay taxes. And there’s a general consensus that some fraction of that money should go to support science in this country.
And I think what you want people to believe, and what has historically always been true, is that if you have people doing science, you cannot predict the outcome but that good things and valuable things in some come from that research and that it pays off. I was visiting China a couple of years ago, I was meeting with some higher up political science figures, and the big thing that they wanted desperately from me was to know how they could plan or instruct their students or their scientists to do experiments that would gain Nobel Prizes for China.
I can understand how people would think that way, that’s another version of “How can we instruct our scientists to do experiments that are going to cure Cancer?” Science is competitive and we do have to judge. And not everybody is going to get money and you have to make these choices, but to have it based on what scientists find as interesting and worth pursuing is the better financial bet I think. But the people whose money it is aren’t going to feel that way quite, so there’s always this balance.
They could buy into that and say “Yeah let’s give some fraction to basic research and some bulk for research where we can see a practical outcome,” and I’m all in favor of that. People suffer from Cancer, and so there’s some kind of balance there. It’s just hard though because from a practical standpoint, if you’re trying to predict ahead of time what you’re going to get out of it, the odds that you’re not going to be doing very good experiments, or that most of the experiments you’re doing are going to be so limited and artificially designed that you could be more profitable to take a route that was not so directed and specific. It’s like if you believe Molecule A is important, you can do an experiment to tell if Molecule A is important or you can do a genetic experiment and look at all of the molecules and find out the one that actually is important. One of them is a more basic kind of research question.
LC: I’m sure you’ve been pushed to think about this beyond your breaking point, but I wanted to talk a little about the science that leads to a breakthrough–not in the Chinese government way of “How can we make people make breakthroughs?” I don’t think anyone expected a really important gene editing therapy like CRISPR to come from a bacterial immune system, but do you think there are elements of science that make things really conducive to high impact or is it really just things kind of pop up when you’re doing good work?
EFW: I think a fair measure, it’s not an infallible measure, but a fair measure is if you can get other scientists to be interested in what you’re doing. And so when you talk about things, if you cannot get anybody to be interested in what you’re doing, scientists whom you respect, it seems to me you’re going to miss out on the one thing that guarantees success which is the community of scientists beating their heads against the wall and against each other’s heads to figure out how things work. And so a constant test, and this is why I think peer review and many other things work, is that the way of predicting what is going to evolve into something that’s useful and valuable is if it’s something that scientists find interesting from a variety of different perspectives. So if the physicist and molecular biologist and genomicist find the mechanics of transcription factor binding to enhancers in concentration dependent ways interesting, then odds are that there’s something interesting there. It’s a very social view of how science works.
LC: That’s interesting. Not to be too confrontational, but it makes me thing of your partner in this experiment Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard presented some of this work on a poster once and scientists came by and didn’t really get it, didn’t really see the impact, and left.
EFW: That’s true. That’s true for individuals. But a lot of people she talked to found everything she was doing very interesting. So the particular individual top scientist can be a fool.
LC: And it’s probably also complicated by the fact that, and you’ve said this a number of times, that the impact of the science you do is defined later by how much it’s followed up on, so it’s hard to say. Maybe there are potential breakthroughs that were simply never followed up on. CAR-T is not a new technology, immune engineering is actually decades old, but now recently has been followed up on.
EFW: All that’s true. But you know, it’s kind of like what they say about democracy–that it’s a terrible government system but it’s better than any of the others, the way we do science. It’s true that you can find historical failures to appreciate something that was truly insightful, but your job as a scientist is to interest other people in what you’re doing.
I believe you have that obligation as a scientist. You have to be able to stand up and talk to other scientists. So much of science is really related to being able to talk to other people and have this emergent effort where finally we understand CRISPR not because the original people necessarily understood CRISPR in this way. If you can’t achieve the community interest, then things are going to be likely stuck back at square one.