You can’t do transformative science without wasting money

This is a great statement by Eric Lander from an interview he gave to James Fallows at The Atlantic last year:

“When will genomics cure cancer?”

Young scientists who need to look at 100,000 cancer samples, or do functional tests inhibiting all the genes in the genome, or explore the use of chemicals in ways they never could before—they need an NIH [National Institutes of Health] that is able to place bets. With sequestration, and the NIH budget falling by about 25 percent in real terms over the past decade, the people reviewing grants naturally become more conservative. When there’s less money, reviewers don’t want to run the risk of wasting money on something that doesn’t work.

I’ve got to tell you, if you aren’t prepared to waste money on things that might not work, you can’t possibly do things that are transformative. Because for every successful transformative idea, there’s five times as many nonsuccessful transformative ideas. Nobody knows how to figure out in advance which ones they’re going to be.

I don’t agree with everything Lander says in the interview – specifically, the statement that we’ll have a “complete catalogue” of disease genes in another five or six years has no basis in reality. But overall, he makes some great points about the transformative potential of genomics.

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