Risk taking and audacity in science…

Research bloggingIn the October edition of Cell1, Amy Maxmen, a New York based science writer, discusses how tackling long-standing scientific problems (i.e. studies that have been prone to failure), or refuting dogma, are perceived to be a poor strategy for early-career researchers; and contends that perhaps they shouldn’t be.

One of the reasons for this is down to the policies of research grant committees.

A common complaint among researchers is that in order to be funded, they feel they must submit conservative grants filled with so much preliminary data that their predictions aren’t quite predictions any more. As Venter says, “The problem in [grant] study sections is the philosophy of proposals being reviewed as contracts instead of ideas.”

My own thoughts are that sometimes the amount of preliminary data required in a grant submission is so great that you’re half way to addressing the research goals at the first base, but only at the cost of the remnants of the last grant, which were used to finance the preliminary studies for the next. It’s as if the research councils are looking for a sure thing, a guarantee of success.

This is not how science should work.

Invariably researchers do encounter a major hitch in the course of fulfilling the grant aims, and have to change tack. We can’t predict this, but Research Councils have to trust that come what may, we will get to the bottom of the scientific problem. In fact,  the process of doing so may throw up hitherto unforeseen, and sometimes very productive, research directions that weren’t covered in the grant. Asking for research grants to be so comprehensive that they amount to having the answers, with the grant merely plugging the gaps, is therefore pointless. Furthermore, since April, research councils also require an account of the economic impact of the research, as if science is a money-making enterprise.

Do a salary review of scientists and tell me that doing science is about making money.

Banking is a money making enterprise. Retail is a money making exercise. Biotech and pharma are money making exercises. Basic research isn’t a money making exercise, it is a process of discovery that can, one day, lead to some money generation, but it’s not the raison d’être.

In Maxmen’s article, UCSF molecular biologist and NIH grants overhauler Keith Yamamoto, indicates that there is a tendency among reviewers to believe that ‘if you think like I think, then I think you’re smart.’ How then can paradigm-shifting, frontier-breaking research ever get funded, when grants aligned with the current ideas of the day are more successful?

What we need is more audacious science, say some. A Careers Advice article by freelance science writer Anne Sasso, published in Science2 addressed this topic last week. However, audacious science isn’t without its risks:

Later, [Steve] McKnight set up his own lab with the aim of facilitating bold research. “Everyone knows, ‘Don’t go to Steve’s lab unless you’re crazy,’ ” he says, because his lab isn’t a direct route to science’s usual currency: publications, tenure, and funding. “As soon as some breakthrough is made and there become obvious things to do, I get tired of them. I’d rather have other people do it,” he says.

“Every student or postdoc who works with me is doing something that may or may not work. And it may take them 3, 4, 5 years, and then it doesn’t work and they have nothing to show for it,” he says. “And maybe that’s irresponsible on my part, but they come in and we start working on something and they’re in the unknown.”

The pay-offs for audacious research can be great, but at a cost that could see an early-career researcher exiled away from further research, or in a low grade lab doing nothing significant.

Amy Maxmen goes on to describe how MIT neuroscientist Susumu Tonegawa was fired [for producing no papers within a 3 year period] while conducting the research that would win him the 1987 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. In his own words:

“I knew I could do something that could be big, so I completely ignored everything around me, including my own termination.”

Fortunately, this flavour of frontier science still has some supporters. Maxmen describes initiatives seeking to support preliminary research, examples including the planned increase of funding to the European Commission’s old Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) scheme.

FET grants typically offer €2–2.5 million for projects lasting an average of 3 years and support long-term, high-risk proposals backed by plausible research concepts that involve new technology. “We want to support research that will change scientific foundations,” says Prabhat Agarwal, a scientific officer in the scheme. “Innovation is a linear concept, and we don’t want a pipeline. We want to create an intellectual ecosystem that will change scientific foundations in the long term.”

There are also creativity and inter-disciplinary research initiatives such as the annual National Academies Keck Futures Initiative conferences, which awards money to support researchers gain the preliminary data they need to apply for more regular grants in the future.

Overall, both Amy Maxmen’s article, and the Science Career’s Advice article by Anne Sasso, paint a picture of high stakes bold research, with such audacious research yielding great rewards for tenacious, out of the box, bold scientists, willing to endure some degree of obscurity in the early days, but tempered by the potential for career suicide.

Hopefully as we all continue to discuss whether research really should be required to have an economic impact, more focus will be given over to discussions on how we can encourage early-stage research in bold and fundamental science.


1 Maxmen, A. (2009). Taking Risks to Transform Science Cell, 139 (1), 13-15 DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2009.09.019

2 Sasso, A. (2009). Audacity, Part 2: A Blueprint for Audacious Science Science DOI: 10.1126/science.caredit.a0900120

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8 thoughts on “Risk taking and audacity in science…

  1. The balance between risk and guaranteed return is quite a hot topic in astronomy at the moment and interesting to hear this discussed from the point of view of the biomedical sciences (can’t access the full article though – not open access).

    The famous example in astronomy is the Hubble Deep Field, which essentially revolutionised our understanding of galaxy formation and evolution by showing the wealth of galaxies in our Universe. The original proposal, for pointing Hubble at a tiny piece of empty sky for many hours with no idea what the resulting image would look like, was rejected by the Hubble time allocation committee. The then-director gave some director’s discretionary time to the project, with arguably the most amazing astronomical image every produced as a result.

    That director, Bob Williams, recently became President of the International Astronomical Union, and he has called for more power to individuals to increase the high-risk/high-return type of research that tends to be rejected by grant committees.

    1. Thanks for the comment. Yes, the Hubble deep-range is a good example of discovery rather than profit. How many postdocs were spent in its development with no end-product in sight? It was a big idea, audacious, and has enriched us greatly as a result.

      I want to try and communicate to non-scientists the importance of all those research cogs in the machine of development and discovery, each of them addressing a small bit of the research space in order to define the best parameters for the development of workable and testable hypotheses.

      With regard the telescope itself, it certain unveiled the wealth of the cosmos, but perhaps not the wealth of the pocket! Though I don’t doubt they bagged some good design patents along the way?

      I’m hoping to flesh-out this topic as regards biomedical research, there being several good, well documented examples.

  2. Thumb through the letters columns of Science or Nature for the 1990s, or the 1980s, or the 1970s – it goes back and back – and you will find lamentations such as in present article. And people have though long and hard about the problem and have come up with solutions, such as that which I give at my website.
    The problem is that the “levers of change” are in the hands of those who have risen to their positions because the present system favors them: “I am a great scientist. The system thinks I am a great scientist. Therefore the system must be great!”
    Take immunization against HIV for example. Everyone knows that immunization can prevent diphtheria, etc. So why not try it for AIDS? An easily marketable proposition and a shoe-in for funds, funds, funds! But those of us who have some understanding of the biology of the AIDS virus have long predicted this will never work, so we cannot honestly put in a grant application in this respect. While we commit intellectual suicide the funds roll on and on. Our more subtle projects get zero funds.
    Now that it is becoming clearer that we have been led down a false trail by the immunizers are heads rolling? Are we now putting just a little loose change into the more subtle projects? Not so!

    1. Thanks for your comment, and for letting me know about your website; it looks like a useful resource. Peer review is once again finds itself a popular point of contention amongst the journal commentaries, blogs and twitterati.

      My own bitterness stems from where my peers and I find ourselves as early-career research scientists trying to break into our own research. We all accept that grant rejection is a fact of life for most scientists, but it now seems like an insurmountable barrier in the UK. The premise that a single researcher with a good idea will be funded seems a marginal possibility in the face of the large collaborative groups working on ambitious systems biology projects. Whilst I have no problem with systems biology being funded, all I see is the lion’s share of a comparatively small pot of funds going to such consortia, with the rest of us left to feed over the scraps.

      My colleagues who work in antibiotics research, into which I have meandered from a background in horizontal gene transfer research, find that their grants receive high grades that would, in previous years, have guaranteed funding. Now such grades don’t even get past the triage on route onto the final selection table. I’ve lamented often enough about the economic situation with antibiotics research, or specifically the lack thereof in industry, which is why we need a funding commitment to such research areas that have obvious importance in future healthcare, but due to the quirks of resistance, aren’t going to produce the kind of long-term profits that committees/industry would like to see.

      Other pertinent quotes from the current paper included:

      Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking.

      I think that doing safe projects must be ingrained in the philosophy of how we train students based on what gets rewarded and doesn’t.” – J. Craig Venter

      If we ask scientists to judge the scientific merit of an application, the tendency is that the grants that score highest will be those that represent the ideas of the day because the people who make the judgments are the ones who create the ideas of the day. There is a tendency to believe that ‘if you think like I think then I think you’re smart.’ This is a problem and now we are trying to address this intrinsic weakness in the system.” – Keith Yamamoto, UCSF.

      It seems like playing it safe, in favour of generating as much income as possible from the current dogma, comes at the cost of the big ideas of the future.

  3. I worked in a lab for a bit that used to sort of roll grant money onto the next project. They’d use the money from the ‘safe’ grant application to fund the new researcher coming in, then once they had enough detail to make their applicaiton ‘safe’ they applied and funded the next researcher etc.

    The only problem with it was when someone didn’t get to the point where their research was watertight enough for a grant. Apparently what with that combined with the recession their starting to hit quite severe problems.

  4. It’s actually a pretty common phenomenon. The fact is, a research grant that is intended to fund a particular line of research is invariably used to prop up all sorts of pet – and underfunded PhD student – projects.

    After all, in ambitious summer studentships, the studentship money doesn’t always go that far, so the student’s work will invariably benefit from some of the current big grant funding the lab – though I’m sure your project work hasn’t been too expensive, unless you start doing NMR grow-ups 😉

    It depends on the funding agency as to whether you can roll it over. Funders like the BBSRC have a ‘use it or lose it’ policy, which means if you’ve underspent (it does happen), then you have to be industrious about how you store the money in lab equity before the grant end-date; so you may set up pre-paid sequencing/oligo synthesis accounts or stock up on consumables etc. All accountably above-board of course!

  5. Jim, my point about the AIDS research establishment is becoming even more apparent as the claimed success of a recent controlled trial comes into question. It seems that we learn nothing from history. Like today’s “Health Czars”, in the 1930s Stalin wanted quick results in agriculture which Nikolai Vavilov could not meet by the slow and subtle, but sure, methods of the new genetics. Enter Trofim Lysenko with a vernalization cure that was easy to communicate to the powers that be. Lyskenko seized the crown and ruled Russian science for decades while millions starved (as did Vavilov himself in a gulag)! Later, it was proclaimed as the “biggest fraud in biology” (see Pringle 2008. The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov).
    Is it right to compare the millions of lives lost due to the successful, but unproductive, marketing of vernalization, to the millions of lives lost due to the successful (but so far unproductive) marketing of immunization against HIV? We do not know. What we do know is that vernalization seemed very reasonable at the time. So the take home message is hedge your bets and so let more funds flow into the apparently less plausible projects.

  6. I know the money that came in for my first student summer job didn’t actually get *spent* on my first student summer job, it was all gone about two weeks after I got into the lab, and I lasted the summer on money from another grant, but from the lab that had used my grant in the first place!

    The accounts department seem to have their own mysterious ways of working things. But it does work on a “if money comes in spend it quick before it gets taken away again” basis.

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