Richard McCormack on the Current State Of U.S. Research

The State Of U.S. Research: Fund Only Old Ideas

It has gotten more difficult for university researchers to conduct high-risk research in the United States. Few programs exist for research into “transformational” science and technology, according to witnesses at a recent hearing on the subject held by the House Science Committee.
The average age of a researcher receiving his or her first grant from the National Institutes of Health rose to 42.6 in 2007. This is not good for young university researchers trying to win a grant to pursue unproven ideas. Only 21 percent of new investigators applying for an NIH award in 2007 successfully received a grant, compared with 24 percent for established researchers. Half of all of the research grant recipients receiving their first award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) never receive another award.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University know how hard it is to win grants. Only 13 percent of grant applications from CMU scientists to NSF result in an award, says Richard McCullough, vice president for research at Carnegie Mellon. “NIH hit rates have dropped 18 percent over the last three years,” he adds.
The situation is even worse when a researcher has a novel idea that is considered to be high risk, for which there is little government funding. If an idea “is truly transformational, then probability of success in obtaining funding is a problem,” McCullough explains. “That is, you need results to get funded and you need funding to get results. I would be shocked if the NIH or the NSF had programs where an idea that is truly new and is high-risk, high-reward would be funded without preliminary results. I assure you that the number of high-risk funding opportunities without preliminary results is diminutive.”

As a result, the U.S. R&D system is rewarding incremental research conducted by people who have already proven their concepts. “As one advisory board member to one of the divisions of the NSF said, the system is set up to reward low-risk research,” says McCullough. “One program manager [said] if he is expected to report in one year how this research has contributed to our country how can he take a chance on high-risk research? I [can] give you multiple anecdotes on proposals in the regular process that get killed for being high-risk, high-reward proposals.”
There have been a few federal programs created recently to target high-risk, high-reward research, such as the NIH Director’s Pioneer Award and the NIH New Innovator Award. But last year these two programs provided grants to a total of only 115 people between them. The Director’s Pioneer Award made 18 of those grants in 2009. In the first year of the Director’s Pioneer Award, NIH received 1,000 applications and selected only nine proposals. “If you go to the NSF, the situation is worse,” says McCullough. “In my opinion, the system is broken.”
The Science Foundation has created the Small Grants for Exploratory Research, the Early-Concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER) and the Transformative RO1 Grant programs. But the amount of money is small and the prospects of receiving an award are slim.
“Consequently, high-risk, high-reward proposal programs are not viable options” for researchers, says McCullough. “As an example, Carnegie Mellon has one $66,000 EAGER grant from the NSF, zero NIH Director’s Pioneer Awards, zero New Innovator Awards and zero Transformative RO1 grants. My colleagues at Carnegie Mellon have related to me that it is often easier to get resources for high-risk research by getting preliminary results at a very slow pace and then using the normal grant mechanisms to fund transformational research. From the perspective of these faculty members, high-risk, high-reward research funding is virtually unavailable from traditional federal sources.”

NSF program officers also do not have the experience to determine what is transformative research, and many don’t have the expertise in different scientific disciplines to recognize breakthrough ideas that are interdisciplinary in scope. The peer-review committees that review grant proposals “are the ‘white blood cells’ of high-risk, high-reward research, since these proposals are easy targets and the reason for elimination from competition,” says McCullough.
Gerald Rubin, vice president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, told the House Science Committee that when it comes to high-risk research it would be better to focus some resources on innovative scientists rather than individual projects. Breakthroughs are not planned, and researchers need to be given the latitude to chase unforeseen developments and those that come from a “flash of insight that occurs at 3 a.m.,” says Rubin.
At the NIH, 98 percent of all awards are made to projects, not people. “I strongly believe that giving money to scientists of exceptional and demonstrated creativity is a better way to promote innovation,” says Rubin. “In my opinion, even a modest shift in the federal research funding portfolio — going from 98 percent to 90 percent project-oriented — could make a big difference in producing innovative and potentially transformative research results.”

Former NSF director Neal Lane says that the difficulty of receiving research grants is leading to “high frustration levels and low morale felt by many new tenure-track researchers.” This frustration is now being “communicated to promising undergraduate and graduate students as they make their own career decisions,” he adds. “Discouraging our brightest students from pursuing research careers is an ineffective strategy for assuring our nation’s science and technology leadership in the future.”


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***Posted November 1st, 2009

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