Helping scientists pursue “blue-skies” research is fundamental for scientific breakthroughs
Two things are essential for success in research: the freedom to do blue-skies research, and embracing both luck and failure, said Sir Richard Roberts, who was awarded the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Phillip Allen Sharp for the discovery of introns in eukaryotic DNA and the mechanism of gene-splicing.
In his keynote lecture "Does basic research count in Medicine?" at the inaugural SingHealth Duke-NUS Research Day held on 21 January 2016, he shared his personal journey to his most important discoveries. He also asked the audience to consider whether Singapore’s education system prepares its students well for a career in research.
He said that blue–skies research is valuable, because that’s where major breakthroughs come from. It allows scientists to ask fundamental questions about the nature of the world, without necessarily thinking of an immediate application of their findings.
“All the big advances in science don't come from translational medicine from day one,” said Sir Roberts.
“It is so important to give young people the opportunity to do things. In the US, the average age of getting a grant is 42, but most of the Nobel Prize winners started their prize-winning work before 40.  Most do their best work when they are young, when they don’t know enough to be scared.”
In his own journey, a childhood passion in solving puzzles evolved into an undergraduate degree in chemistry. This was followed by a doctoral thesis in molecular biology and a career in research that led him to win the Nobel Prize.
The success he experienced can partly be attributed to luck, he said, recalling the time as a Ph.D. student when he was placed in a lab with a postdoctoral fellow Kazu Kurosawa, who proved a gifted teacher.
Kurosawa not only suggested the right experiments, but also explained why they should be done. This gave Sir Roberts enough material for his thesis within one year instead of the required three years. He used the last two years reading and experimenting in other areas.
“Luck is incredibly important, but a lot of us feel guilty when it strikes. You have to make the most of it when a lucky break comes along,” said Sir Roberts.
Besides taking advantage of the lucky moments, Sir Roberts encouraged seizing transformative moments.
“Take advantage of the fact that all sorts of interesting people come through the institution and give talks in areas you don’t know much about. You don’t know when it rings a bell.”
Besides grasping fortuitous moments, embrace failure as it could lead to new discoveries, said Sir Roberts.
He said, "I've learned to love failure. When you fail, you actually learn. If an experiment gives you results you didn't expect, nature is telling you something."

Q&A with Sir Richard Roberts

Tomorrow's Medicine (TM): How does one find a “pet research topic?”
Sir Richard (SR): Read Nature and Science or medical journals like The Lancet. Then find something interesting, follow up and find something new.
Ask questions all the time. When there are questions that people can’t answer, you might have just found your research topic.
TM: What do you think would be the most important development in Medicine in the next 10 years?
SR:I think that [the study of] bacteria in the human microbiome is going to be really important. Just by manipulating the microbiome, we could lower the cost of healthcare. If we discover that a particular bacterium is really good for use, we can just grow it, then put it in a slurry for the patient to eat.
A good example is the use of fecal transplantation to treat Clostridium difficile infection. We don’t know whether it is one or four bacteria, or the compounds they produce that does the trick, but it works.
TM: What is stopping our young researchers from pursuing blue-skies research?
SR: In many societies, people live in a culture where they believe all textbooks, professors and parents. It’s stifling and doesn't allow them to be creative. Creativity comes when you have time to think about new things.
Leave our kids to play, get into trouble, do stuff the parents wouldn’t want them to do, because this is how they find out about the world. You don’t learn until you make mistakes.
TM: What are some challenges that researchers face today?
SR: Funding is certainly something of a problem. I would point to the Singapore system as one that stifles creativity, because the concern over how every second and every penny are spent. In the end, a lot of researchers spend their time filling in papers instead of actually getting on and doing the research.
A lot of grants we see in Singapore are not blue-skies research because, I think, in the preliminary review process, the review panels censor the ideas they don’t think will work, the really creative ones. I think a lot of scientists don’t think things could be different.
TM: Which model of research is better, then?
SR: There are many ways to fund and do research. The methods that work best give researchers the money and don’t try to monitor every step that they take, or give them grief if they didn’t get the expected results.