16th March 2022

Taking true risk in scientific exploration

Oct 1, 2020 was an exciting day. Not only was it the day of the Life Sciences Bridge Award Ceremony, it was also the day that I started my first fully independent position as a tenure track professor at Technical University of Darmstadt. I was fortunate to obtain start-up funding from my university to equip the lab and hire a small team. Alike most starting professors, however, I knew, that rolling out an exciting and internationally competitive research program would require substantial, additional funding.

The Aventis Foundation award prize was the largest sum of „third party funding“ that I had obtained at the time. Looking at the 100k € “check”, my first impulse was to save the money for emergencies. Just in case the microscope would break down; Just in case none of my other grant applications were successful; Just in case I needed money for an additional paper revision; Just in case a meteor would hit the lab…

Although 100k of research funding in the savings would certainly have comforted my sleep, I challenged myself to take risk. I took on additional students, started several exploratory projects and spend considerable award sums on expensive, high-risk experiments. Most projects failed, few continued. While I watched the Life Sciences Bridge Award funds decline at a scary pace, one particular line of experiments slowly began to shape an exciting research avenue: Studying protein allostery, a mechanism capable of switching protein activity on or off, via a combination of protein engineering, directed evolution and machine learning.

Seven months later, already half way through the award funds, I submitted a proposal to the European Research Council (ERC) summarizing this project idea, which was backed up by some promising pieces of initial data obtained from the exploratory experiments.
And then came months of waiting, uncertainty, sometimes sleepless nights. I increasingly questioned my decision to spend the award funds so quickly. I felt that I had probably taken too much risk, that I should have spent the funds on safer research projects with more predictable outcomes (I call them “home-work” projects). I also knew that without additional funding sources, my lab would be bankrupt within 18 months. Yes, 18 months. I did the math many times during these days and the equation is frustratingly simple: Each euro can only be spent once.

When I eventually learned that my ERC starting grant was funded, the relief was immense. From an investment point of view, I had made fifteen times the Life Sciences Bridge Award money in only one year – a 1500% return that would even make Warren Buffet jealous. But stock exchange and natural science are two very different things. What had actually happened was that the award funds enabled my lab to go through a short but intense period of exploration not constraint by pre-defined objectives, exogenous pressures or specific deadlines. Pure curiosity-driven, exploratory research only limited by the creativity of my fantastic team. No strings attached.

I am deeply grateful for this unique opportunity and I hope that many more young group leaders and starting professors are allowed the same privilege: Being able to – at least for once – take true risk in scientific exploration.  

by Dr. Dominik Niopek