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Where to Spend Our Research Dollars

A Progressive Stimulus Package Should Include Grant Reform

young woman in front of computer in biochem lab SOURCE: flickr/gregclarkephotography Innovation to boost economic prosperity requires new ways to get more funding to our most talented young researchers.

During their first days in office, the new Obama Administration and the 111th Congress will be focused on halting a downward spiraling economy with a recovery package of federal spending which could, appropriately, include academic research. But once we move beyond crisis-response mode, discretionary funding is likely to be severely constrained. In times of constrained budgets it is especially important to bring strategic focus to federal research funding decisions in order to find new ways to increase the long-term impact of those dollars. The Obama Administration can make some early policy decisions that will help the United States get the most out of its research investment.

A white paper released last year by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences points to two priorities that need greater attention. The first is support for early-career researchers. The second is funding for high-risk, high-reward research that has the potential to be transformative. If our nation does not take these two steps, then the United States risks losing a generation of productive researchers and the benefits of their innovative ideas.

The recent report, ARISE, Advancing Research in Science and Engineering, was drafted by 22 leading scientists—including members of the Science Progress advisory board—from a variety of fields, including four Nobel Prize winners. It paints a worrisome picture of the status quo. Newly hired research faculty—those entering what should be their most productive years—have a hard time finding funds to support their work. On average, biomedical researchers don’t receive their first grant from the National Institutes of Health, their primary source of funding, until they are 42.

The percentage of grants from NIH going to new researchers has been falling, and most researchers spend too much time submitting multiple applications before they receive their first grant. The situation is equally bleak at the National Science Foundation where the approval rate for grant applications from new researchers has fallen to 15 percent. Recipients of NSF grants have, on average, already been out of school for nine years before they receive their first grant.

The United States is being deprived of the kinds of path-breaking work that could be the basis of future economic success

What’s more, the U.S. research system has become very risk-averse. Scientists tend to submit conservative research proposals for fear that more innovative ideas will be turned down. The result of these trends is that the United States is being deprived of the kinds of path-breaking work that could be the basis of future economic success—the next leapfrogging technology on the order of the Internet or entire new fields such as biotechnology. Investment in early-career faculty and high-risk research will provide immediate opportunities for future leaders and strengthen the foundations of our economy.

The government can take concrete, budget-neutral steps to improve the situation. The problem is as much inertia as it is a lack of funds. Federal agencies should set up, or in some cases expand, programs that are devoted exclusively to funding early-career investigators and the most innovative, potentially transformative research. If the research budget increases, then these programs should be the first to get new funds. If budgets do not increase, then money needs to be shifted into these programs from other programs, projects, and centers. Recent initiatives at the NIH, such as the Transformative R01 grants program, and at the Department of Defense substantially increase investment in basic research at academic institutions and begin to address these issues. But more needs to be done.

Ongoing programs also have to be administered so they do not disadvantage early-career researchers or far-reaching ideas. Case in point: Peer reviews of first-time and second-time grant applicants should have expectations appropriate for that career stage, paying more attention to an investigator’s promise. To promote potentially transformative research, applications should minimize detailed methodology and instead explain the impact the research would have if successful. And progress reports should explain the applicant’s most important accomplishments, not just list prior publications.

Beyond modest but far-reaching shifts in how the federal research pie is divided, the ARISE report targets several low-cost changes that could dramatically improve the science and technology research picture. These include strengthening review systems, enhancing support for program officers, and improving data collection and analysis across agencies.

In the months since the publication of the white paper, the chair of the Academy’s ARISE group, Thomas Cech of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and other committee members have met with agency officials, professional societies, university groups, and congressional policy makers to discuss the report in detail. We hope that this will stimulate a deeper discussion of our nation’s research and education enterprise and, in particular, the intertwined government and university policies and procedures that affect the success of early-career scientists and the opportunity to engage in high-risk, high-reward research.

Neal Lane is the Malcolm Gillis University Professor and senior fellow at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University.

Leslie Berlowitz is the chief executive officer of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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