Monday, December 16, 2013

Innovation-stimulation: will it work? Definitely worth a try!

Francis Collins has for some reason decided that NIH should try really, really this time, to stimulate research 'innovation' by moving at least a bit away from costly, wasteful, excessive but incremental big project grants, to dedicating a goodly chunk of NIH external research funding to individual investigators rather than large groups.  Here is the Nature story about it.

Alpine ibex climbing Cingino Dam in Italy (source: every other web site)
The NIH has been experimenting with funding high-risk, high-reward science with four separate pilot programs, including the Pioneer awards.  According to the Nature piece,
The NIH currently spends less than 5% of its US$30-billion budget on grants for individual researchers, including the annual Pioneer awards, which give seven people an average of $500,000 a year for five years. In contrast, the NIH’s most popular grant, the R01, typically awards researchers $250,000 per year for 3‒5 years, and requires a large amount of preliminary data to support grant applications.
Expanding the program is clearly a move in a good direction.  Big projects have their place, but have become as much a reflexive strategy for self-perpetuation as they are truly justified by their results history (which, by and large, isn't all that good or has reached diminishing returns).

Of course, individual independent investigators are just people, trend-following herd animals like most of us are.  Once the new program is in place, every investigator will flock to the trough.  Most will propose routine, safe projects even if they assert that they're 'innovative'.

Those proposals that really are innovative will involve risk in two main senses.  First, they mainly will involve procedures or strategies that are to the area and/or to the investigator, truly new, unclear, or untried.  Second, if the work is really innovative, most of it won't get completed on time, won't yield much in the way of publications, and -- worse -- won't find anything really new.

But is that outcome really 'worse'?  We think just the opposite!  If not much is invested in a project, not much is lost if it was truly creative but failed.  By contrast much is currently invested in huge projects that are so safe that they hardly generate commensurate returns.  Indeed, the reason for the failure of a really exploratory study may provide more useful knowledge than most 'positive' studies' findings.  And most potentially innovative ideas are, and turn out to deserve to be, busts.  That is why we call the ones that succeed innovative: they can change how we think.

This NIH policy change won't change crush of competition to keep the grants flowing, and will make it hard to see what is really innovative, in the inevitable panicky rush to get one's salary covered and keep the lab operating.  It takes experience, perhaps, but not undue cynicism, to predict that this new policy will be gamed and strategized.  The overpopulation of investigators still need funding (or jobs!), and will flood to the new trough, finding all sorts of reasons why their work is innovative.   Do you think it could be otherwise, or that such discussions are not taking place already at brown-bag lunches in departments across the country?

Place limits
Unless we limit how much funding any one investigator can have, don't give these new grants to people who already have a grant or impose some such restrictions, we will largely see just be a game of musical chairs.  New labels, same stuff.  After all, who will be reviewing and administering these applications?  It will be the same people who have brought you big-scale non-innovation all these years.  Unless today's heavy hitters are able to reverse the politics back to the old way (making sure their big-projects don't get curtailed!), NIH will make it a new System, with all the bureaucratic politics and cumbersomeness that that involves.  If their career has been spent in the current treadmill, how many will even be able to think in truly innovative ways?  We are, after all, middle-class people who need to earn a living as things now stand. What else can you expect?

Still, the change should be better than what we currently have!  The amount of funds wasted in the new way will be less than the amount being thrown away in the current rush to Big Science, the seeking of huge projects too big to kill and thus to provide career safety for the lucky investigators and their labs and fancy equipment.  As long as in the new way, the funds for individual researchers are enough to let them do good work but not enough to let them get comfortably entrenched, or for their administrators to depend on the overhead, then it's got a chance to make a real difference.

Of course, this will work even better if those who are training graduate students and post-docs inculcate innovative thinking.  If the grants are big enough just to enable faculty to hire students and technical staff to do the work, they may work less well.  What we need are grants to individuals that are small enough that the recipients will actually have to roll up their sleeves and do some of their own work.

We would suggest a fillip that should be tried:  Give grants to graduate students to do their own truly independent project, not just to be serfs on their mentors' project. Independent, free-standing funding for dissertations.  Labs should be their professors' places of training, not just their playgrounds.

Finally, we know that too-few and too-small will not really work well (compare western science to most of Eastern European, Indian, or South American science in the '80s, for example).  But unrelenting vigilance will be required to prevent coalescence once again into fewer, bigger projects.

If it can be done and really done properly, this could be a salubrious change, in directions we have to approve of, since we've been criticizing the current big-science mode for years. But we have to be patient, because innovation is very hard to come by.


Jesse said...

Failing on truly innovative projects would generate very useful data - but a big shift in how we do and communicate projects and results needs to happen so that those projects are published somewhere.

Manoj Samanta said...

Good suggestions, although I do not see any way to fix the NIH without completely abandoning the current system.

"We are, after all, middle-class people who need to earn a living as things now stand."

From our FYI section. Middle-class American family earns ~$55K/year. That is after the income of husband and wife are combined.

Ken Weiss said...

Absolutely right