Field of Science

Uncle Syd's idea for funding new assistant professors

I was leafing (virtually of course) through old issues of "Current Biology" when I came across a thought-provoking, slightly tongue-in-cheek essay by Sydney Brenner in an issue from 1994. Brenner used to write a regular column for the magazine and his thoughts ranged from improving lab conditions to junk DNA; as is characteristic of Brenner's incisive mind, almost all the columns give you something new to think about. 

It was Brenner's ("Uncle Syd") fictitious letter to an assistant professor ("Dear Willie") just starting out in his new career that caught my eye. Perhaps the column can offer some ideas to assistant professors floundering in this gloomy age of funding crunches and declining job prospects. After acknowledging the fundamental and paradoxical difficulty that new professors who need funding the most don't have any experience in getting it, Brenner comes up with a framework - the BISCUIT:

"I have for long entertained an elegant solution to this difficulty, and that is to found a bank, BISCUIT (Bank of International Scientific Capital and Unpublished Information and Techniques), that will lend scientific capital to first-time grant applicants and others in need. It will not only lend ideas for research but also loan experiments that have been carried out but have not been published. We have to be careful with the latter, because although such holdings are of high value they could undergo instant depreciation if someone else does the experiment and publishes the result. Where, you ask, does the bank get its capital? No problem. I know a number ofscientists who have a surplus of scientific ideas and lots of experiments that they find too boring to write up and these 'wealthy' individuals would be the first investors. The bank would also continue to receive deposits. Once we got going, everything would be fine, because the borrowers would not only have to pay back capital but we would charge interest so that our holdings grew. And, of course, if any depositor were to suffer a catastrophic career collapse, he could withdraw all of his capital and start again. The beauty of it is that he would get new, up-to-date ideas and experiments and, in this way, his original deposit, although used a long time ago, will have retained its value and will not have been corroded by time. I am amazed that in these times ofhigh-powered service industries nobody has thought of doing this before, but perhaps that's because it is only scientists who will profit from the BISCUIT bank."

Reference: Current Biology, 1994, 4, 10, 956

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