One day, a young man called Fred had an idea. He was excited, and wanted to develop it further, but this would need money. So he wrote a well-researched proposal, which he submitted to Marc, the appropriate senior manager with authority to allocate the required finance. A short while later, Fred received some bad news – Marc had rejected his proposal, for Marc had considered Fred’s idea stupid.
This, of course, is a familiar story – many of us will have had a relevant personal experience, either as the submitter of an idea which was subsequently rejected, or as an assessor of the ideas of others. And in many cases, matters stop there: Fred gets back to his day-job, and – quite likely – never submits an idea again, for no-one wants to be judged as stupid, twice.
It turns out, though, that for the particular Fred I have in mind (for Fred is a real person), matters didn’t stop there. Fred’s boss, Bert, intervened. “I don't care what Marc has said,” Bert told Fred. “I think your idea is good. And it so happens that I have some budget squirrelled away that I can let you have, so you can develop your idea a bit further.”
In doing this, not only was Bert breaking all the organisational rules, he was taking a huge personal risk too. By providing funds to Fred, Bert was openly flouting Marc’s judgement – which, as we all know, is not a politically savvy move in most organisations. And at the same time, Bert was risking his reputation on behalf of Fred: if Fred’s idea did indeed turn out to be a lulu, Bert would be held responsible for the waste of time, money and resources (and how come Bert had some money squirrelled away anyway?), and Bert’s judgement would never be trusted again. Bert, then, was a very brave man – he could easily have chosen not to support Fred, and simply say, “Sorry, Fred, life’s like that. Back to the day-job…”. But Bert didn't say that. He said, “I believe in you, Fred – go do!”.
So, Fred did go do. And it turned out that his idea wasn’t such a lulu after all. It won him a Nobel Prize. Outright. Not only that: it set up some further ideas that won a second Nobel Prize - Fred, in fact, is the only person in the 115-year history of the Nobel Prize to win two Nobel Prizes for Chemistry, and one of only four people to be awarded two Prizes across all subjects (the others are Marie Curie, Physics, 1903 and Chemistry 1911; Linus Pauling, Chemistry 1954 and Peace 1962; and John Bardeen, Physics 1956 and Physics again in 1972).
Fred Sanger, 1918 - 2013
After receiving a PhD in chemistry, Fred Sanger joined a research team led by Professor Albert Chibnall in Cambridge. Fred was very interested in the structure of proteins. At the time, it was known that all proteins were composed of sub-assemblies known as amino acids, of which there are twenty different types. Fred’s ‘big idea’ was to identify the particular sequence in which the amino acid sub-assemblies are linked together in the protein insulin. He thought through a very innovative way of doing this, and submitted his proposal for funding to the UK’s Medical Research Council, one role of which was (and still is) to finance medically-related research. Fred’s proposal was then reviewed by a panel of the ‘great and good’ of the time - and received a resounding thumbs down: “everyone knows that all proteins are just random sequences of amino acids, so the idea that there is a specific sequence in insulin is just potty”.
That could have been the end of the story. But it wasn’t, for, at considerable personal risk, Albert Chibnall intervened, and provided funds to get Fred’s research going. And the rest, as they say, is history. Fred established that the sequence of amino acids in any given protein is not random, but very specific – indeed it is that specific sequence that distinguishes any one protein from any other. His discovery of the amino acid sequence for insulin won him his first Nobel Prize in 1958, and laid the foundations of his subsequent research to determine the sequence of the ‘base pairs’ which specify the structure of DNA. This won a second Nobel Prize in 1980, and is the basis of all DNA ‘fingerprinting’ that takes place around the world today – for example, at the appropriately named Sanger Centre in Cambridge.
But if ‘Marc’ had had ‘his’ way, if Bert had not intervened, Fred would have done other things – perhaps winning a Nobel Prize in another field. But perhaps not. And although it was Fred who won the Nobel Prizes, I would argue that the hero of this story is Bert.
I’m sure we’d all like to be like Fred: winning a Nobel Prize (or two!) must feel good. But, deep down, we all know that that’s pretty unlikely. But we can all be like Bert – to say ‘yes’ rather than ‘no’, and to create the conditions in which others can flourish.