Take a minute, jot down all the projects you are currently working on, and then ask yourself this question: “Why am I doing these projects?”.  Specifically, why those projects and not others?  I’ve been thinking a lot about how we come to do the science we do – possibly inspired by my quarterly assessment of funded grants, leading to exclamations such as “How the hell did you get funding to do that?”, “That’s a dumb idea!”, and “What the ****?!”

So that got me thinking: can we sum up the reasons why we do certain projects?  I came up with the following.   We do things for one or more of the following reasons:

1. Because we want to
2. Because it needs to be done
3. Because no-one has done it before
4. Because we can get funding to do it
5. Because we can

There may be others, and please comment below if you think there are.

It becomes fun to combine these, and if we assume the absence of the other terms means that the opposite is true, then we can start thinking of interesting combinations.  For example, if you are doing something only because you want to, then the absence of the other terms means it doesn’t need to be done, someone has done it before, you can’t get funding for it and you can’t actually do it anyway.   This would mean that doing something just because you want to is a really dumb idea.

Some of them may seem to clash: e.g. if it needs to be done, then doesn’t that mean that no-one can have done it before?  Well, not really.  For example, many genome assembly tools exist, but as there is room for improvement, and a new attempt might be welcome.  Equally, doing something that no-one has done before is not necessarily a good thing – e.g. trying to assemble a genome from 2bp reads has never been done before, that doesn’t make it OK for you to try!

Ideally, all 5 would be true for any project to go ahead, but I suspect this is rare.  So what is the minimum set of requirements that should be matched before a project is green-lighted?  In academic science, I suspect the minimum is (2), (4) and (5).  But actually, how often is (4) the only reason that someone does a project?  There are certainly people who “chase the funding” and make a very good career out of it.  But is that enough?  If (4) is true in the absence of (2) then this is a waste of valuable research funding.  This is also if we have (4) in the absence of (5) – getting funding to do something you can’t actually do, again, is a waste of valuable research funds.

In bioinformatics in particular, I think it is important to look at number 3 – as Nick and I pointed out here:

No matter how gnarly a problem or how cutting-edge a method, there is a pretty good chance someone out there has tried to tackle it already

So e.g. whilst the presence of an existing aligner might not preclude funding for another one, the additional benefits of creating a new one should be quite high.

I wonder if we could start thinking of a list of questions that every grant should be able to answer, possibly based on the above, before they could get funded?