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AAAS: Future Crop of Researchers and Trail-blazing Science May Wilt Without Special Focus

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – If the United States wants to propel the kind of technology that will give it the continued preeminence in the sciences, particularly in the life sciences, that it has enjoyed over most of the past century, then it needs to focus more resources and energy targeting and supporting younger researchers and bolder science, The American Academy of Arts and Sciences said today.
Early-career researchers and trail-blazing ideas are being suppressed in this era of federal belt-tightening, when bureaucracies try to make the safe, sound funding judgment, the AAAS said in a white paper released today that it hopes will get people talking.
Early career scientists have a harder time than their more senior colleagues obtaining grants “in what should be one of the most productive stages of their careers,” according to the AAAS paper, which is called ARISE – Advancing Research in Science and Engineering.
Research that can generate the big ideas that “disrupt complacency and conventional thinking” also has been slighted, because when resources are slim reviewers tend to go with the tried-and-true projects, according to ARISE.
The Committee on Alternative Models for the Federal Funding of Science, which included academics and government and private foundation officials, produced the report and said that boldness in science withers in times of want because of the “natural tendency to give highest priority to projects they deem most likely to produce short-term, low-risk, and measurable results.”
Avoiding risky investments is a ‘basic human reaction’ to lower funding levels, explained Thomas Cech, who is director of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and chair of the ARISE committee, in a press conference today.
“If there’s not much research funding around, we worry about funding research that might not work. Instead we look around to find research that may offer useful, but incremental gains,” Cech added.
Cech also argued that researchers are frequently “holed up in their offices working as serial grant writers.”
This phenomenon of “serial grant writing has a really corrosive effect,” said committee-member Keith Yamamoto, a gene transcription researcher at the University of California, San Francisco. Spending too much time trying to gain money distances scientists from their research, and keeps them from “spending time with their students, mentoring them,” Yamamoto said today.
“Students in the lab watching this newly minted faculty member grinding through this process then become discouraged” themselves about their chances in the field and “sets up a self-reinforcing set of circumstances.”
The committee combed through records over the past thirty or forty years and found that the average age for first-time awardees of grants from the National Institutes of Health’s primary research grants is rising, and that the funding rate for new investigators is lower than that of established recipients of NIH funding.
The overall funding rate for all RO- equivalent awards was 23.6 percent in 2007, while for new investigators it was 18.5 percent and for established investigators it was 26.1 percent.
Since 1980, the committee found, the share of first-time investigators winning these grants “declined steadily” from nearly 33 percent to 25 percent in 2006.
The committee found that even during the doubling of the NIH budget in between 1997 and 2004, the overall proportion of new investigators “remained essentially constant,” and abated in the years of lesser federal funding through 2007.
Transformational science of the high-risk, high-reward variety that the committee said the US needs to promote more of is more difficult to track than grants, as are the ages at which scientists receive them.
For uniformity, the AAAS committee agreed with the National Science Board, which defined transformational research as being “driven by ideas that have the potential to radically change our understanding of an important existing scientific or engineering concept or leading to the creation of a new paradigm or field of science or engineering.” Transformational research also challenges current understandings and offers a “pathway to new frontiers,” according to the NSB.
A 2007 survey of investigators by the NSF found that while more than 56 percent of researchers who responded believe that NSF welcomes transformative research proposals, over half also found little of what they would call transformative research among the proposals they had reviewed.
The committee also offered a number of recommendations for government and university stakeholders.
First, early-career scientists should be “made a priority government-wide,” the white paper advises. There is a need for grant programs that target early-career faculty and for strengthening existing programs that already exist, it said.
Special attention needs to be given to early-career faculty during merit reviews of regular grant programs, and there ought to be career-stage appropriate expectations for grant funding, as well as seed funding for these junior researchers, said AAAS.
For universities, the AAAS committee advises developing or strengthening mentoring programs to encourage early-career faculty, reconsidering promotion and tenure policies, and addressing the needs of primary caregivers with families.
The only recommendation the report holds for private foundations was that they should “spread the wealth and cap the number of start-up and first awards made to a single investigator.”
In order to push the kind of high-risk, high-reward science the AAAS wants to see more of, government should look into targeted programs such as grant mechanisms and policies that can foster transformative research and establish specialized metrics to evaluate the success of these programs. Application and review processes could be strengthened so that they would better appreciate high-risk research projects, said the committee.
The government also should encourage program officers to become and remain more involved in the communities that they fund, which requires an adequate administrative budget that should not be at the cost of research.
According to the paper, more demographic data on applicants and principal investigators needs to be collected and analyzed so that more is known about whom and what is being funded. The non-uniform method for tracking grantees today “hinders efforts to analyze funding trends,” AAAS said.
Many of the proposals in the paper were outlined a month ago at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science held in Washington, DC.

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