In Defense of Risk

Ordinary ideas typically don't produce the most rewarding research, one blogger says.

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All experimental research has

All experimental research has risk if it is truly original and not merely confirmatory. The decision to carry out a specific experiment or line of enquiry is dictated by the rewards verses the costs. The costs include time, money, and lost opportunity to pursue more productive directions. Safer research may be initially less expensive, but it usually does not yield much further insight.

Granting agencies generally support low risk, hypothesis-driven research, because this is often believed to lead to better designed experiments that produce clearer answers to the questions posed. However, I doubt that this is generally true. Even today, our knowledge of the true complexity of biological systems is extremely rudimentary and limited, and most of the hypotheses that are advanced are very simplistic. The formulation of more powerful hypotheses is best driven with access to large amounts of data as well as human creativity in linking diverse observations.

Most scientific breakthroughs arise from the development of better tools, which are largely products of innovation, and their application in new directions. The study of systems biology with equipment and reagents that facilitate "omics" research has yielded immense amounts of data. Analysis of this data has been assisted by advancements in computing, but unfortunately most biomedical scientists still focus their attention on a relatively small subset of just a few proteins in their research. Such thinking is re-enforced with how most research is selected for funding by granting agencies.

Unfortunately, grant support for "omits" research, when it does happen, usually tends to be restricted to mega-projects that are highly onerous to apply for and even worse to administer. Such mega-projects are extremely expensive, usually lack followup and longer term objectives, and are thus poorly translated into practical purposes such as the development of new diagnostics and therapeutics. Because of the large sums of money involved with these projects, they often receive a much higher level of management and accountability towards ensuring achievement of specific goal-oriented milestones. Similar to what transpires with industry-based research, interesting leads are often ignored and either discarded or buried.

Scientific discovery would be more fruitful if the powerful, new tools of "omics" research were made more easily and widely available to greater numbers of researchers. Rather than making these resources available to a select few, government-funded core facilities might be established that subsidize this kind of research for undertaking by a wider range of investigators on a contract basis. After a brief hold-period, the resulting data sets should ultimately become deposited in open-access databases that are more user friendly to query. More resources should also be devoted to the development of synthetic intelligence systems (better known as artificial intelligence) to assist in specific queries. Finally, grant agencies should support a larger number of researchers, with less funding if necessary, to get more human brain power focused on the biomedical problems that confront our societies.