In his editorial, Frank Gannon points to perhaps not a new, but an important problem in science. We are often only aware of those scientists who have made discoveries or have contributed outstanding and ground‐breaking results to a field. And we tend to overlook colleagues who are less fortunate, those whom Gannon calls “the foot soldiers of science”. Edmond H. Fischer interjected a joke in one of his recent talks: “What is serendipity in science?” he asked. “It is as if one is looking for a needle in a haystack and one finds there instead a farmer's daughter.” Not everyone has the good luck to find a farmer's daughter or to make an important discovery. But that does not mean that his or her work is not important.
In the 1960s, there was a series of articles on the chemistry of DNA, published by two scientists. They treated DNA with various kinds of chemicals, such as mustards, and published data that I—at that time a Ph.D. student—considered unimportant, simply filling journals with data nobody was interested in. Only later did I realize that their data helped to develop many important methods of molecular biology, including chemical DNA sequencing. And I remember my Ph.D. supervisor telling me at that time that no results, as long as they are correct, can be underestimated. But also that nothing can be more damaging than results that are not correct. Now I know he was right.
Which brings me back to the editorial. Many scientists today are contributing valuable data, but not making discoveries. Their lives are often difficult and full of tension. They may not obtain grants, and they have to defend their programmes again and again at departmental meetings. Most of them love research, and do not want to leave it. Gannon discusses possible ways the scientific community could deal with this problem, and I would also like to comment on that. At a recent meeting of the European Union (EU) 6th Framework Programme Committee for Life Sciences, Genomics and Biotechnology for Health, one delegate articulated the concerns of some countries that their scientists would not be involved in the final selection of supported projects. This would mean that the top tier of European scientists, with well‐endowed laboratories, would get even more money compared to those from poorer countries. In other words, the less wealthy countries would support research in rich countries. This may not only be a problem for EU candidate countries, but for others as well.
As the Czech delegate to the European Molecular Biology Council (EMBC), I have had an ongoing dispute with our Ministry of Education, which pays the membership fee of the Czech Republic to EMBC, about joining the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL). This would be more costly than our EMBC membership, and the argument of the ministry was that we were not even recouping what we paid to the EMBC in fellowships and other means of support. To achieve a balance, it was very important to inform the Czech scientific community about the possibilities that the EMBC provides, and thus increase the number of applications for various means of support. This took some time, and it is difficult to explain to the responsible officers of the ministry that Czech scientists are now benefiting from EMBC membership, and that they would also eventually benefit from joining EMBL.
There are ways the wealthy European countries can help the more impoverished countries. Perhaps the leading institutions in the field should encourage collaboration, and those whose projects are selected in the 6th Framework Programme should include good teams from poorer countries. This would pay off in the long term, as Europe would be in a position to exploit its human resources more effectively. But of course, each country must first help itself. How? Probably through the wise policy of supporting research in the fields where excellent results—whether they be new discoveries or high quality products—are likely to be achieved. This, of course, is not easy to assess, and the responsibility must lie with the governments of each country. But the wise governments will ask the scientists for their opinions.
- Copyright © 2003 European Molecular Biology Organization
Václav Pačes is at the Institute of Molecular Genetics, Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Prague, Czech Republic