The New York Times' Nicholas Wade likens NIH's funding of basic research to the management of a stock index fund — "they buy everything in the market, and the few spectacular winners make up for all the disasters." In fact, basic research is so risky, he adds, that only the government is interested in paying for it. "It is a venture that produces far fewer hits than misses," Wade says. Scientists spend their lives fighting nature for a piece of the puzzle, he suggests, and scientific victories are "hard won," when there are any victories at all.
But at Science 2.0, Michael White calls Wade's characterization of basic research "overly simplistic." The point isn't to think of research as a bunch of hits and misses, but as a series of "incremental" changes to what we know, he says. Most of the time, when something goes wrong, it's not a disaster, but a small change to what we know about a given subject. In fact, most NIH-funded work ends in success because NIH is "very unwilling to take risks in search of the spectacular winner," White says. Most individual scientists fail on a day-to-day basis, but they eventually figure it out and succeed, he adds.