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Would Harvey, Sulston, and Darwin Get Funded Today?

At a recent meeting of a National Institutes of Health study section, a colleague dismissed a proposal as "descriptive." In study-sectionese, this is essentially the kiss of death. Several aspects about this attitude trouble me. The first is the proposition that the word descriptive is synonymous with bad. Perhaps I am being a hopeless 19th century romantic, but it appears to me that some of the most important contributions in the history of biomedical sciences have come from what would now be

Tv Rajan

At a recent meeting of a National Institutes of Health study section, a colleague dismissed a proposal as "descriptive." In study-sectionese, this is essentially the kiss of death. Several aspects about this attitude trouble me.

The first is the proposition that the word descriptive is synonymous with bad. Perhaps I am being a hopeless 19th century romantic, but it appears to me that some of the most important contributions in the history of biomedical sciences have come from what would now be dismissed as descriptive. Whether it is William Harvey's description of the circulation of blood or J.E. Sulston's incomparably lovely cell lineage tree in Caenorhabditis elegans, our science is primarily driven by careful observation and painstaking description.

Similarly, Baruch Blumberg made a seminal contribution to our understanding of biology when he discovered the etiological agent of hepatitis B. His studies were not directed toward this goal or...

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