Opinion: Research redesign
We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us: A scientist proposes a redesign of the US biomedical research enterprise
[Published 9th November 2010 02:20 PM GMT]
There is a crisis in American biomedical research. Severe competition for federal research funding jeopardizes the careers of both new and established scientists. The fundamental problem is not the amount of government funding, but rather the unrestricted expansion of the research enterprise. With every funding increase, deans' eyes widen, buildings sprout, and the biomedical establishment expands well beyond what the increase can sustain. The net result is diminishing support per investigator, and an inexorable downward spiral of the attractiveness of biomedical research as a career.
We scientists can do better for ourselves, our trainees, and the biomedical research enterprise itself, which is an important contributor to the physical and economic health of our nation.
Ending the boom-bust cycle of NIH funding requires rationally planning the number of NIH-supported investigators and trainees. Here, I suggest extending the model of the NIH intramural funding system to the entire NIH funding system.
The idea is for the government to employ grantees in situ (like HHMI investigators), where they would maintain their academic positions and their participation in teaching and other institutional obligations.
Rather than submitting grant proposals to fund their research, funds would be allocated based on quadrennial reviews of investigator productivity and the general direction of their research. This would have enormous benefits. It would end the fiction that grant proposals can predict important discoveries in advance. It would end the corrupting prevarication that the "proposed" research hasn't already been initiated (if not finished), and the common practice of using grants to fund more promising ideas not included in the proposal (which is increasingly running afoul of auditors, clueless of how science actually advances). It would save enormous amounts of time spent writing and reviewing grants. It would prevent grant reviewers from filching ideas from proposals. It would free the imagination of investigators, who would be able to pursue their best ideas, and not their most fundable ideas.
But here's the deal. No more super-sized labs, unless mandated by truly special circumstances.
Again the model is the NIH intramural program, with an average group size of approximately eight investigators (one principal investigator, one technician, one PhD-level staff scientist, five postdoctoral/doctoral/pre-doctoral trainees). Trimming large labs would free resources to support more independent investigators. It would also greatly encourage collaboration between groups with different expertise, increasing collegiality scientific excitement, and productivity.
The productivity of the proposed "extra-intramural" system is a critical issue. Given the advantages of a direct funding mechanism described above, true productivity -- as measured in important discoveries and not numbers of publications -- should increase. A key to maintaining productivity will be the effectiveness of the review process. The NIH intramural system provides an example of fair yet rigorous peer review that occurs on a quadrennial basis. Non-productive laboratories typically close after two consecutive substandard reviews (i.e. over an 8-year period), and the resources re-assigned to a new investigators (typically tenure-track) recruited from a worldwide search for the best talent.
The potential of tenure-track intramural scientists is judged after a 5- to 6-year period principally by the quality of their publications. Candidates must have demonstrated that their productivity is largely due to their efforts and not collaboration with stronger groups. The offer of "tenure", i.e. becoming a full government employee, is made only on the advice of two Promotion and Tenure committees: one at the Institute level, the other at the NIH level. Further promotions through the academic ranks (with commensurate salary increases) are made via an Institute committee, but with oversight from the Institute and NIH intramural directors.
The greatly relaxed competition for funding will have enormous payoffs in the psychological state of individual scientists and the entire scientific enterprise. Today's intense pressure brings out the worst in human nature, eroding the integrity of the research culture. Data fudging and outright fraud is increased in such circumstances, particularly in grant proposals, where data are preliminary and not subject to the crucible of reproducibility by other labs.
The cycle of pain that accompanies repeated grant rejections contributes to a poisonously critical atmosphere that saps creativity and kills the spirit and joy of science. The negativity extends to reviewing manuscripts where it is particularly devastating for young scientists, whose efforts are typically subject to the brutal criticism of reviewers (us!) demanding more and more data, in what typically leads only to incremental findings that do little to modify or improve the major findings of a study.
Don't get me wrong -- constructive criticism and vigorous competition are essential to the scientific process. Constantly proposing, testing, and remolding hypotheses is the only path to the elusive truth. Human nature is such that this process is greatly accelerated by competition between investigators with common interests. The competition must be collegial, however, and based on respect, not fear.
Science is an essential element of modern society and should be a joyous undertaking. Our principal mission as scientists is to pass the torch of the scientific method to the next generation, which entails making science a decent career to pursue. We can and must do better.
Jonathan Yewdell is the chief of the Cellular Biology Section at the Laboratory of Viral Diseases at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The views in this essay are strictly the personal opinions of the author, and do not reflect official government policies or opinions. For a longer version of this essay, please email the author (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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