Would we fund past Nobel Prize winners in today's climate?

An editorial by Stanley Fields in this month’s issue of Genetics asks, “Would Fred Sanger Get Funded Today?”. Sanger died last year at the age of 95.

Fred Sanger
Frederick Sanger, from Wikipedia

Fred Sanger won two Nobel Prizes for his work, first by determining the amino acid sequence of insulin, and later for developing technology that remains essential for sequencing RNA and DNA. The fact that Genetics found it sufficiently newsworthy to ask the question of whether NIH would fund his work today seems like a vote of “no confidence” in the current funding system.

The paradox posed by Fields is that although Sanger produced highly innovative research, he did not produce a large number of papers. Over his long career, Sanger only published around 70 peer-reviewed research. By contrast, today it is not unusual to see laboratory heads who have 70 publications before age 50. To many critics, the funding climate today values a certain kind of clock-punching in which the volume of publications is valued over any independent assessment of the quality of work. So the question is whether a clearly innovative scientist like Sanger could succeed today.

Peter Higgs posed a similar question from the perspective of physicists in a Guardian essay, “Peter Higgs: I wouldn’t be productive enough for today’s academic system”. He lamented that today’s academic system does not provide the kind of time and independence necessary to make fundamental breakthroughs.

Fields decides (justifiably) that Sanger would have no worries today, assuming the NIH study section was rational:

Let's look at just the 5 years preceding the dideoxy paper as if this were the track record upon which Sanger’s next grant application would hinge.... In the 5 years before the dideoxy paper, Sanger published nine papers of original research, encompassing a couple of methods and several reports of sequences. Five of these papers appeared in the Journal of Molecular Biology, two in Nature, and one each in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences U.S.A. and Biochemistry Journal.

That’s a good track record for impact factor, although today’s publishing landscape makes this comparison less obvious with many more outlets for genetics research. Fields tips the scale with Sanger’s prior achievement.

I contend that a modern-day NIH study section would give Sanger a highly fundable score for three reasons. First, Sanger had a track record. He had, after all, won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1958 at the age of 40 for determining the amino acid sequence of insulin. Especially when you consider that the average age of principal investigators obtaining their first NIH grant is now ∼43, Sanger nearing the age of 55 or 60 at the time of our panel would be viewed as a long-time scientific luminary, if no longer a boy genius. While it may be disingenuous to tell young scientists that their best hope of getting an NIH grant before they're into middle age is first to win a Nobel Prize, we can at least recognize that important prior success paves the way for later favorable evaluations. Sanger would seem a good candidate for a Pioneer or similar award from the NIH that relies primarily on the qualifications of the investigator.

So there it is, win a Nobel Prize and you have a good chance of NIH funding!

The really interesting part of the editorial is that Fields himself admits that the present funding system is opaque:

Today I am sometimes hard-pressed to recognize more than the occasional name on a study section roster. The lesson here is that more of the senior members of our community need to serve on review panels. Many have suggested that receipt of an NIH grant should constitute an obligation to serve when asked, a suggestion that should be formalized by the funding agency.

The average age of new investigators for the first time they attain NIH funding is now 43 years old. Fields suggests that innovative work can be promoted most effectively by “funding people, not projects” to reward past innovation. That seems very unlikely to reduce the average age of first grantees.