There can be many definitions of successful research and many factors that contribute to it. Comprehensively discussing all of these can fill the pages of several books and is beyond the aims of this post. Rather, I want to focus on two factors that I consider most important for success as I define it: Accelerating the rate of progress. Making discoveries that stand out and stand the test of time.
The first factor is the direction that we choose for our research. Choosing a worthwhile direction is essential: No amount of work can compensate for misguided direction. Choosing a fruitful and original directions is very hard, and I consider it as one of the most limiting factors in advancing biomedical research at the moment. By fruitful I mean a question that is worth asking and that can be meaningfully answered with existing tools and resources. By original I mean a question not already pursued by investigators with similar skill sets and tools.
People and culture
The second factor is the people, both their individual abilities and their ability to work as a team. The pool of colleagues whom a PI can successfully recruit is defined by the research itself: the vision, the tools and past success. Having recruited strong people, a PI should help them grow both individually and as members of a team pursuing a shared vision. This mentoring is the second major role of a PI (in addition to developing and articulating a compelling vision) and deserves a devoted future post.
Of course other factors can be influential and even intertwined with the vision and the people seeking to realize it, i.e., prestige and resources can help to attract more capable people. Still, I consider all other factors secondary, especially for resourceful leaders. Overthinking some of these secondary factors may waste precious time. For example, should you buy all equipment as soon as you start your lab or buy equipment when you need it? I am not sure how to determine which is better, but I think either way can work well and the benefit of the “better” option is unlikely to make the difference between success and failure or even to deserve the time spent on deliberation.
I think we — the research community — can be much more successful if we invest more time and effort in what matters: Coming up with original new leads and helping each other grow as scientists and people. Happy & successful new year to everybody!