Tim Harford's Adapt: How to fund research so that it generates insanely great ideas, not pretty good ones.

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May 17 2011 6:57 AM

Positive Black Swans

How to fund research so that it generates insanely great ideas, not pretty good ones.

The following is excerpted from Tim Harford's new book Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure. Also read Part 1 about the Spitfire, the experimental aircraft that saved Britain during World War II.

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Nobel Prize-winner Mario Capecchi

Mario Capecchi's earliest memory is of German officers knocking on the door of his mother's chalet in the Italian Alps and arresting her. They sent her to a concentration camp, probably Dachau. Mario, who had been taught to speak both Italian and German, understood exactly what was being said by the SS officers. He was 3½.

Mario's mother, Lucy, was a poet and an antifascist campaigner who had refused to marry his abusive father, Luciano, an officer in Mussolini's air force. One can only imagine the scandal in prewar, Catholic, fascist Italy. Expecting trouble, Lucy had made preparations by selling many of her possessions and entrusting the proceeds to a local peasant family. When she disappeared, the family took Mario in. For a time he lived like an Italian farmer's son, learning rural life at an apron hem.

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After a year, his mother's money appears to have run out. Mario left the village. He remembers a brief time living with his father and deciding he would rather live on the streets: "Amidst all of the horrors of war, perhaps the most difficult for me to accept as a child was having a father who was brutal to me." Luciano was killed shortly afterward in aerial combat.

And so Mario Capecchi became a street urchin at the age of 4½. Most of us are content if, at the age of 4½, our children are capable of eating lunch without spilling it or confident enough to be dropped off at the nursery without tears. Mario survived on scraps, joined gangs, and drifted in and out of orphanages. At the age of 8 he spent a year in the hospital, probably suffering from typhoid, passing in and out of feverish oblivion each day. Conditions were grim: no blankets, no sheets, beds jammed together, nothing to eat but a crust of bread and some chicory coffee. Many Italian orphans died in such hospitals.

Mario survived. On his 9th birthday, a strange-looking woman arrived at the hospital asking to see him. It was his mother, unrecognizable after five years in a concentration camp. She had spent the last 18 months searching for him. She bought him a suit of traditional Tyrolean clothes—he still has the cap and its decorative feather—and brought him with her to America.

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Two decades later, Mario was at Harvard University, determined to study molecular biology under the great James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA. Not a man to hand out compliments easily, Watson once said Capecchi "accomplished more as a graduate student than most scientists accomplish in a lifetime." He had also advised the young Capecchi that he would be "fucking crazy" to pursue his studies anywhere other than in the cutting-edge intellectual atmosphere of Harvard.

Still, after a few years, Capecchi had decided that Harvard was not for him. Despite great resources, inspiring colleagues and a supportive mentor in Watson, he found the Harvard environment demanded results in too much of a hurry. That was fine, if you wanted to take predictable steps along well-signposted pathways. But Capecchi felt that if you wanted to do great work, to change the world, you had to give yourself space to breathe. Harvard, he thought, had become "a bastion of short-term gratification." Off he went instead to the University of Utah, where a brand-new department was being set up. He had spotted, in Utah, a Galapagan island on which to develop his ideas.

In 1980, Mario Capecchi applied for a grant from the U.S. National Institutes of Health, which use government money to fund potentially life-saving research. The sums are huge: The NIH are 20 times bigger than the American Cancer Society. Capecchi described three separate projects. Two of them were solid stuff with a clear track record and a step-by-step account of the project deliverables. Success was almost assured.

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