The Karikó problem: Lessons for funding basic research – STAT
Katalin Karikó is the now-celebrated scientist who, along with a colleague, published a key paper in 2005 on messenger RNA. Her discovery ultimately formed the basis for two Covid-19 vaccines: one made by Pfizer and BioNTech, where Karikó now works, and one made by Moderna.
She emigrated to the U.S. in 1985 with her husband and then-young daughter to take a postdoc position at Temple University in Philadelphia, and eventually got a job as a non-tenure-track research assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania. But she was demoted in 1995 because, no matter how many times she applied for NIH funding for her mRNA research, she never got a grant for it. Yet she persisted. A couple of years after her embarrassing demotion, she ran into immunologist Drew Weissman at the office copy machine and struck up a conversation about mRNA. Weissman was intrigued, and asked Karikó to come work in his lab. Eventually, the pair figured out how to modify mRNA just enough that it would still work, but without triggering the body’s immune system to kill off the molecule first.
This is a fascinating prelude to the “Kariko problem”.
Here’s what the author writes further:
That’s why we should worry about the invisible Karikós: the people with good ideas that weren’t popular at the time who dropped out of academia. It’s unlikely that she was the only person in the world who had an interesting idea in 1985 that could have turned into a groundbreaking discovery over the next few decades.
I am not sure if I am facing the Kariko problem. I have been trying unsuccessfully to get into the “academia”-meanwhile I have some younger peers handed over something “prestigious”. Sometimes, it boils down to time, place, and some luck, including the perception around a particular “place”. That’s why it is an unfair measure of the person and the people about their origins. If someone has made it somewhere, no one should underestimate the struggles behind. For example, it is an effort to type out everything here – but as I have mentioned, it is a matter of personal growth. Writing your thoughts (and demonstrating a measure of understanding) is a better virtue than “recommendations” from mentors. It is this system that is rife with populism, gaming the metric and trying to prove the inherent worth. Is it a surprise that cold emails go unanswered?
I have heard stories about academia and the issue of funding from the disbursing agency. Grant applications become extremely bureaucratic, because funding proposals and approvals require accountability and transparency. It is unfair to compare the NIH funding with the “new-age start-ups” with little oversight and claiming to be funding “crazy ideas”. Who knows about their agenda driven “research”?
The author proposes her “solution”:
My answer? Bend over backward to fund a more diverse range of people and ideas, even deliberately including ideas that are currently perceived as unpopular, unworkable, obscure, and the like. After all, many scientific discoveries can be traced back to origins that didn’t seem promising — like CRISPR, which began with a Spanish study on salt-loving archaebacteria in 1993 — or even to ideas that are actively opposed by the establishment.
As again, the hype around “diversity and inclusion” is without merit. You wouldn’t “automagically” get the breakthroughs (that require serendipity, observations or luck), but follow through initial applications/enquiries that have been crafted while keeping with the institutional focus and requirements. I keep my own metric of collaboration if the opposite party has some measure of integrity. I have learned a lot from these experiences (and failures) at every step, and it’s these failures that make me the most suitable applicant for the job! Why would you want to hire the most “successful” person out of the pile? They wouldn’t know failure. My measure is to have someone with the most failures and some successes, because their world-view is grounded in reality. They will appreciate the grant process better than someone using the grant to game the system to get into the 1%. This is my personal observation.