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In many ways, failure defines science more than success. Dead ends are far more common than breakthroughs.
AIDS researchers are now grappling with this law of the universe. As I reported in an article today, after two decades of searching for an HIV vaccine that would protect people from the deadly retrovirus, they have little to show for their efforts and are reeling after the most promising vaccine candidate proved ineffective.
As a result, the vaccine research community is rethinking how to approach the problem, and the general sentiment is that fresh ideas and scientists are needed. At the summit I attended yesterday in Bethesda, the relative merits of upstart newcomers and wise veterans were much debated.One panelist told the assembly that the answer to the HIV vaccine puzzle was not likely to come from anyone in the room. Another agreed newcomers were needed but warned against throwing out the geezers with the bath water.
It was one of those soul-searching debates of old gaurd vs. new blood that often follows some major failure. Wisdom versus inspiration. Calming hand versus enthusiasm. Old versus new.
These things are never a strict dichotomy of course. The Golden Mean lies somewhere between the extremes. Senior scientists convey the fundamentals of the trade to their proteges, who in turn develop radical ideas that carry the discipline forward. In time, those same young radicals and their once-fresh ideas become the establishment against which yet another new generation rebels.
After listening to the debates at yesterday's summit, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the head of National Institute of Alergy and Infectious Disease the NIH agency that funds most AIDS vaccine research said he thought more money is needed for exploring new ideas and supporting young researchers.
He plans to set aside more money for RO1s, a type of grant used for novel experiments. He tossed out $10 to $15 million in next years budget as a possibility. He talked of scaling down support for clinical trials in humans - the last experimental stage in biomedical research, typically conducted by senior scientists.
Basically, in HIV vaccine research, new is in and old is out.
On the other hand, it was a group of established scientists who gave credence to this -- people who have a lot of influence on where research dollars get spent. They acknowledged their failure to produce results and paid lipservice to supporting young scientists, but it's hard to imagine they would distance themselves too far from their federal meal ticket.