A Nobel Prize for Intuition

Source: NYTimes, Oct 2005

This week’s Nobel Prize winners in medicine – Australians Barry Marshall and Robin Warren – toppled the conventional wisdom in more ways than one.

They proved that most ulcers were caused by a lowly bacterium, which was an outrageous idea at the time. But they also showed that if science is to advance, scientists need the freedom and the funding to let their imaginations roam.

Marshall and Warren’s attempts to culture the bacteria repeatedly failed. But then they caught a lucky break – or rather, outbreak. Drug-resistant staph was sweeping through the hospital.

Preoccupied with the infections, lab techs left Marshall’s and Warren’s petri dishes to languish in a dark, humid incubator over the long Easter holiday. Those five days were enough time to grow a crop of strange, translucent microbes.

That same year, at an infectious disease conference in Belgium, a questioner in the audience asked Marshall if he thought bacteria caused at least some stomach ulcers. Marshall shot back that he believed bacteria caused all stomach ulcers.

Those were fighting words. The young physician from Perth was telling the field’s academically pedigreed experts that they had it all wrong. “It was impossible to displace the dogma,” Marshall explained to me in a jaunty, wide-ranging conversation several years ago. “Their agenda was to shut me up and get me out of gastroenterology and into general practice in the outback.”

Helicobacter pylori has since been blamed not only for the seething inflammation of ulcers but also for virtually all stomach cancer. Marshall’s antibiotic treatment has replaced surgery as standard care. And the wise guy booed off the stage at scientific meetings has just won the Nobel Prize.

What does all this have to do with scientific freedom? Today, U.S. government funding favors “hypothesis-driven” rather than “hypothesis-generating” research. In the former, a scientist starts with a safe supposition and conducts the experiment to prove or disprove the idea.

“If you want to get research funding, you better make sure that you’ve got the experiment half done,” Marshall told me. “You have to prove it works before they’ll fund you to test it out.”

By contrast, in hypothesis-generating research, the scientist inches forward by hunch, gathering clues and speculating on their meaning. The payoff is never clear. With today’s crimped science budgets and intense competition for grants, such risky research rarely gets funded. Proceeding on intuition, Marshall told me, “is a luxury that not many researchers have.”

It helps, he added, to be an outsider. “The people who have got a stake in the old technology are never the ones to embrace the new technology. It’s always someone a bit on the periphery – who hasn’t got anything to gain by the status quo – who is interested in changing it.”


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