Remaking the scientific grant process

NIH, the big enchilada

October 10, 2018

No one could say that science isn’t big business. According to the current issue of SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, annual expenditures for research and development add up to $2 trillion (they don’t specify whether this is the entire planet or just the US), but one would conclude that this is a big chunk of change. In fact, despite screams of outrage at the Trump administration’s initial budget proposals for 2017 and 2018, funding for NIH alone stands today at $37 billion. The article goes on to discuss the fact while a lot of terrific science get accomplished, at the same time there is a massive amount of waste in the process, and the mechanisms of funding science don’t always get the money to the right place. 

The article suggests some innovative solutions. To overcome the fact that too few scientists are funded, the author suggests that after an initial review, the granting agencies perform a lottery which would avoid the extremely costly and cumbersome process of peer review of individual grants.

To overcome the aging of US grant recipients, the article suggests hiring more young faculty in Universities. But, the author doesn’t broach the subject of mandatory retirement, as is the case in European countries. It is difficult to see where universities are going to come up with the money the hire new, young faculty if they don’t force older faculty members out, especially since full professors earn on the average $95,000 versus $65,000 for new assistant professors.

One problem that granting agencies have struggled with for years is how to fund high risk ideas. Both granting agencies and private companies are loath to put their money into projects that while exciting, have a low probability of success. To deal with this challenge, the author suggests two solutions, neither of which I believe will work.

One is to fund excellent scientists rather than specific ideas, and give them free reign. But these scientists got where they are by knowing how to play that game, and by pursuing research programs that may be excellent, but fit into the mainstream, not the cutting edge. So they’re not going to change.

The second suggestion is to communicate to the public that science is a cumulative enterprise, and many projects will fail in the course of their execution. But this assumes that the public has some voice in how funds are targeted in science, and that they have the intelligence and motivation to inform themselves. In fact, most of our political debate these days is focused on issues that put the National Enquirer to shame, and are an embarrassment and a national disgrace. In the current atmosphere of dominance of our political discourse by the reptilian brain, it is difficult to imagine that even politicians, let alone the public will know or care or act on these issues.

It is encouraging to see public debate on these issue in a magazine as prestigious as SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, but I’m not optimistic that these discussions will move beyond the talking stage.


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