Sometimes this can mean being faced with some very hard choices indeed. In 1996, Edinburgh University's Centre for Human Ecology was working on precisely the sort of big questions whose answers are going to be critical to the future welfare of vast numbers of people: the political factors leading to environmental destruction and the links between social exclusion and resource depletion. The university didn't like this at all, principally, it seems, because some of its funders were very uncomfortable with the centre's findings. Within the same fortnight that it decided that Christopher Brand, the so-called scientific racist, should stay on, the university shut down the Centre for Human Ecology.
The researchers there, some of whom were eminent and highly employable, could have done what many others would have done, seeking uncontentious work in other faculties or other universities. But they stuck to their guns. They saw that nowhere else would let them function as an effective unit, working on the issues they knew to be important. They kept the centre together and set it up in a farmhouse 30 miles from Edinburgh. The Centre for Human Ecology is now a desperately underfunded, independent organisation, whose members rely on social security, donations, and voluntary work from concerned scientists around the world. They have done the right thing, and it hurts. I am afraid that this is the sort of choice that many scientists who are prepared to shoulder their responsibilities might have to face. They will not get big money to answer big questions. The big money is reserved for the small questions, whereas the big ones attract only tiny amounts of funding.
It's time that we started to concentrate on asking and trying to answer the big questions, however painful it might be. The world is best apprehended with the naked eye, not the gene sequencing machine.
What follows are addresses and Websites where readers can find further information about the issues raised here.