Risk taking and audacity in science…

by Jim Caryl

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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