Why failing to understand evolution makes your NIH reform ideas suck

Ron Germain’s “people not projects” solution to fix the NIH funding scheme has been praised, apparently by people I don’t know, and roundly criticized by my friends and colleagues on line. In my med school applications, I wrote that having been an East Asian Studies major, I had the experience of having my world-view challenged and that this might be useful in science and medicine. It’s clear to me that the current reformers (let’s throw in ASBMB President Steve McKnight’s latest essay about how the NIH peer review process works) are working under some different cultural assumptions about how science works, as Physioprof has noted and I’d like to extend on that point. I’d go further and say that as brilliant as Germain and McKnight may be, their approach to science policy is flawed because they apparently do not understand the theory of natural selection.

Herbert Spencer’s phrase “survival of the fittest,” used by Darwin has promulgated the view that evolution proceeds when an individual survives because it is “better.” Evolutionary biologists dislike the phrase because it fails to encompass the diversity of reproductive strategies, but “survival of the fittest” has also shackled our understanding by putting too great an emphasis on the individual. I am a physician and cancer researcher, not an evolutionary biologist, and my understanding of this topic is rudimentary, but I think a lot about cancer cell growth as a Darwinian process, and it would be better if the phrase were “survival of the best fit.” For decades, cancer researchers have been trying to understand “the cancer cell,” and we certainly have learned volumes of molecular and cellular biology. Yet we remain baffled. In the case of the cancer I study, multiple myeloma, we have analyzed cancer cells with all available technologies including whole genome sequencing, and yet we are unable explain how these cells are different from pre-malignant versions that fail to grow and do not kill patients. Many of us feel the answer to how myeloma cells grow rests just as much in the environment around the tumor cells as in the cancer cell itself. The individual is not determinative, the environment plays a central role.

With that in mind, it becomes clear why the fixation that Germain and McKnight share of finding “the best” scientists is misguided. It fails to take into consideration that the “fittest” scientists are those that have been fortunate enough to find a suitable environment. It also fails to consider how terrifying it is for non-traditional scientists to be judged by their CVs alone. I know many outstanding scientists that have leveraged their stable upbringings and supportive environments to achieve great success. Germain’s own description of his career is one where his brilliance was recognized early and he was ushered into the club where he continued to thrive. I have done pretty well myself. But I know without a doubt that being a white dude has helped me immensely. I have great sympathy for people who have been kept out of the boys club because they just weren’t quite the right fit. Not everyone blooms early, and what motivates me is the possibility that hard work and creativity will pay off in the future. Any plan that fails to account for the fact that amazing contributions can be made by people with unassuming backgrounds is flawed.

That outstanding scientists may be diverse and thrive in unique niches. Basically that the tree of life is not linear but multi-dimensional. Even smart people are terrible at predicting the success of project ideas, but “people not projects” is only palatable when examined from within the cloistered environment of the NIH and HHMI. Successful people fall into two traps: they take personal credit and discount the role of the environment, or they think their environment was objectively the best for anyone’s success. Evolution happens from completely unexpected matches between diverse environments and diverse individuals. I like simple solutions, but by setting up a narrow criteria of success you will select for those that match your criteria but you will lose creative individuals without ever having realized what you have missed. Life thrives in diverse environments with unexpected solutions. Any single environment, or selection criteria, is an arbitrary one and we should provide an array of different paths to success so we allow people the opportunity to find one that fits them. 

Germain’s proposal is a useful starting point for reforming the NIH. It captures very well the ideas of some very successful insiders. The monoculture produced a document, but there should be a little humility regarding the stink of nepotism that hangs over it. While the proposal represents a change from business as usual, it risks further perpetuating a monoculture or making it even less diverse. The challenge is how to get a counter-proposal from outside the gates from a group that does not believe there is a single best strategy for success.