Sydney Brenner lamented in an essay in Science a few months ago that in the current funding climate that two-time Nobel laureate Fred Sanger would not have made it.
"With continuous reporting and appraisals, some committee would note that he published little of import between insulin in 1952 and his first paper on RNA sequencing in 1967 with another long gap until DNA sequencing in 1977," Brenner wrote. "He would be labeled as unproductive, and his modest personal support would be denied."
The University of Washington's Stanley Fields, though, has a different view.
In an essay in Genetics this week, he argues that Sanger was more productive than Brenner implied, noting that Sanger published some 70 original research papers during the course of his 40-year career in addition to a number of reviews and lectures.
Sanger, Fields argues, would be funded because he had a proven track record — and won a Nobel Prize by the age of 40 — that "moved the needle" and that some members of the hypothetic review panel would appreciate "its boldness and its ingenuity."
While Fields notes that most researchers aren't Sanger, he adds that bold researchers need to be better appreciated.
"Those who have proved themselves capable of imaginative science should get more of a boost than they currently do in an NIH review system where the quality of the investigator is merely one of five criteria," he adds. "The lesson here is that funding for people — especially those who knock down brick walls — and not just for their projects, pays off, often spectacularly. "