I have heard many biomedical researchers express the opinion: “In biology, ideas are cheap. It is the doing that matters.” I do not share this opinion. However, I would like to understand it, particularly since it seems quite prevalent and shared by prominent professors and institutional directors.

One aspect contributing to this thinking is perhaps the fact that biological systems are complex, and this complexity makes it hard for ideas and theories alone to resolve important problems. Of course there are prominent examples to the contrary, such as kinetic proofreading, but the majority of prominent and widely-celebrated triumphs have been driven by experimental data, increasingly experimental data acquired by large consortia.

The main aspect, I think, is what people mean by the word “ideas”. In biomedical research, ideas for informative and low-risk next-step experiments float in the community, at conferences and review articles. Securing the resources to implement these ideas first and implementing them well is crucial to the realization of these kind of ideas. However, there are also the non-trivial and original ideas, such as kinetic proofreading. It is clearly this interpretation of the word “idea” that Albert Einstein had in mind when he said:

You ask me if I keep a notebook to record my great ideas. I’ve only ever had one.

I think that this kind of ideas are the most prominently lacking aspect of our data-rich discipline. This kind of ideas are scarce and essential element of research. They are precious !