Opinion: Good, But Not Good Enough

Funding only outstanding researchers is increasing the gap between good and great labs and forcing some out of science in search of a bigger paycheck.

Umberto Galderisi
Feb 22, 2012

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The system for funding scientific research is broken.

This declaration came to my mind after I experienced three separate occurrences. The first was my application for a European research grant. At the end of the evaluation procedure, the reviewers wrote that my proposal was interesting, I had a good track record of publications, and the project had been well described. Nevertheless, they had to reject my application since I am a “good” but not “outstanding” researcher. This reply was received after I had applied for dozens of research grants without success.

My reading of a comment by John P. A. Ioannidis in Nature (477,529–531 2011) was the second occurrence. He wrote: “...the research behind 30 percent of the pivotal papers from Nobel Laureates in medicine, physics, and chemistry was done without direct funding.” The third occurrence was the refusal by a grad student of mine to enroll in...

When these three events occurred last year, it made me realize the pervasive problems that exist in the current research funding system. It is obvious that at a time when there is a shortage of funding, only those scientists who are truly outstanding have a good chance of receiving grant awards. I myself know that I am a good scientist, but that there are individuals out there who are better scientists than me. Nevertheless, I do my job to the fullest and make my own contribution to the advancement of science. Funding only the extraordinary may only serve to widen the gap between top laboratories and other scientific institutions and could actually be detrimental for the progress of science. Indeed, there are good researchers from less known facilities who would greatly contribute to the advancement of scientific knowledge if they had access to financial support. To avoid this, reviewers of grant applications should not have a bias toward proposals coming from well-established and already highly financed labs.

The current funding regime also discourages curiosity-driven research. We have to write boring applications, always identifying the possible impact on human progress and health. We must precisely indicate what will happen at the end of the research study, and what the short- and long-term expectations are. We have to foresee all the possible pitfalls and caveats. It is true that a research project should have a research plan with expected results, possible alternative plans, and an understanding of the potential impacts on scientific advancement. These, however, are not the only criteria upon which reviewers should evaluate a project. Consider this: if everything goes as we reasonably hypothesize, why do we have to waste time performing research? Science is not done to confirm the obvious. The 2006 Nobel Prize winners Andrew Z. Fire and Craig Cameron Mello, for example, were studying a gene involved in body axis formation when they stumbled upon RNA interference phenomena that have completely revolutionized biology and medicine. It was a curiosity-driven study that produced unexpected results not written in any research proposal.

Day in and day out, modern society is based exclusively on money. Education is considered less important for obtaining and measuring success. The fact that so many individuals without a college degree get paid higher salaries than a competent scientist who has successfully completed a degree in higher education is simply wrong. Why should I be shocked by my student’s reply if at the university level scientists are evaluated by their peers mainly for their ability to get money? Where are the defenders of sheer science? I guess they lost their way.

I do not want to make a useless complaint. Below you will find some proposals that may be amended, ameliorated, or discarded. Additional or alternative ideas are highly welcomed.

1) Equalize the power: If a company or firm holds a position of such economic power that allows it to operate in a market without being significantly affected by competition and engages in conduct that is likely to impede the development or maintenance of effective competition, it is considered an abuse of its dominant position. The same idea should also be applied to scientific institutions, research groups, and individuals. For example, for new grant applications, it should be mandatory to indicate all the research grants and endowments a given person/institution has. If two research proposals have roughly the same scientific value, the grant agency should favor the proposal of the less endowed group/institution, rather than the group with the more impressive track record.

2) Avoid personal bias: As in the case of NIH, all grant agencies should have scientific panels composed of 20-25 experts whose names are disclosed and not hidden, and the applicant can choose the panel to whom to send his/her application. He or she does not know who among the members of panel will be selected to review his/her grant but, for will be able to avoid panels on which there are persons who may potentially have a bias towards his or her proposal.

3) Reward the “good” ones, too: Usually grant applications require the h-index and/or impact factor of the principal investigator in order to give a global score to the research proposal. Highly cited scientists take it all. I suggest offering research awards dedicated to “good but not outstanding” scientists, analogous to the awards available to only “young investigators.” This could be done, for example, by accepting applications from only scientists with a good but not outstanding h-index (track record of papers, etc.).

4) Consider the environmental advantage: Grant agencies also evaluate the scientific environment to see if the research will be carried out in a scientifically encouraging institution. Of course, they claim that the better the institution is, the better the research will be done. Reverse this idea. Do you think it takes the same effort for researchers in less developed countries that do not invest much in research to publish a decorous research in a good journal (say, with an impact factor between 5 and 10), as it does for researches in wealthy nations? Even inside wealthy countries there are inequalities. Do you think it takes the same effort to publish if a researcher works in a prestigious American institutions (Yale, Harvard, Cold Spring Harbor, etc.) or in less known and endowed teaching universities? I believe that those scientists who do objectively good research but who come from an unfavorable environment are the ones who should be awarded the funding.

5) Get to the point: Research application forms must be simple, not like the nightmarish forms of the European Community. Reviewers should focus on the core of the project and not the short-, middle- and long-term impact on scientific progress.

Umberto Galderisi is a molecular biology professor at the Second University of Naples in Italy and an adjunct professor at the Sbarro Institute for Cancer Research and Molecular Medicine Center of Biotecnology Temple University in Philadelphia.  He is also the president of Stem Cell Research Italy, a young scientific association that gathers more than 200 Italian researchers. He can be reached at umberto.galderisi@unina2.it.