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Academy of Arts and Sciences Wants Early-Career, High-Risk Research to Get Special Attention

WASHINGTON, DC (GenomeWeb News) – The American Association for the Advancement of Science funding meeting held here this week was invaded today by the “other AAAS,” the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which sent a representative to talk about the impact of reduced funding on young researchers and scientific innovation.
 
John Crowley, a consultant at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, presented a set of recommendations from a white paper that the organization plans to release on June 3 that is intended to spur more transformative research that could help the US maintain its competitiveness in the future. The paper, “Advancing Research in Science and Engineering; Investing in Early-Career scientists and High-Risk, High-Reward Research,” was drafted by a large committee that includes scientists, consultants, policymakers, and academics.
 
This group is focused on generating discussion about things the federal government, universities, and private foundations could be doing to support early-career researchers and to encourage science that may be both high in risks and high in rewards.
 
“This is not a plea for more money,” Crowley told the group, but he said that what the committee calls “transformative research” is connected to funding levels.
 
“When funding is tight, reviewers and program officers have a tendency to give highest priority to short-term, high-yield, results-oriented projects,” he said. “And federal agencies systemically shy away from high risk,” he added.
 
“If you don’t know it’s going to work, don’t put it in your proposal,” is the tacit message that is given to early-career scientists, Crowley said. “That is unfortunately the mindset,” but research grant mechanisms must empower, rather than inhibit creative thought, and there must be enhanced tolerance for new directions, he said.
 
The white paper, Crowley said, has a number of recommendations for things federal agencies and others could do to help keep researchers from spending undue amounts of time submitting multiple grant applications when they ought to be in their labs.
 
For example, federal funders should create or strengthen existing large, multi-year awards for early career faculty, the paper advised. These agencies also should pay special attention to early-career faculty during regular merit reviews, and expectations should take into account the researcher’s career stage.
 
In addition, those holding federal purse strings should provide seed funding for early-career faculty to let them pursue ideas that have no results to support them, the group suggested.
 
Policies should also be responsive to the needs of researchers who are primary caregivers in a household, many of whom are women. Grant extensions or other mechanisms could help these scientists/parents advance their research without costing them their family responsibilities, according to the paper
 
The committee that drafted the white paper also said that universities should strengthen their promotion and tenure policies for early-career research faculty, and they should develop and strengthen mentoring programs that would help younger researchers benefit from the knowledge and experience of their more senior colleagues.
 
“Institutions should take greater responsibility to paying the faculty,” Crowley added.
As it is now, he said, “a principal investigator is expected to sustain themselves, their equipment, staff, and labs with almost 50 percent of their funds through grants.”
 
This puts a disproportionate burden on early-career scientists and discourages them from taking risks, the committee said in an advance summary of the white paper. 
 
To help make up the balance of slackening federal support, Crowley said, the committee also recommended that universities “should shoulder more costs of developing new facilities and programs.”
 
Private foundations, the AAAS committee advised, currently play an important role in filling the gap in funding for early career research, but they also should “spread the wealth” and cap the number of start-up and first awards that they give to a single investigator.
 
To promote high-risk, high-reward programs, Crowley said, federal agencies should consider developing targeted programs that would foster transformative research in key areas, and would establish metrics to evaluate the success of these studies. The aim would be to promote important research while not starting more fruitless grant-writing efforts.
 
“Grant programs that fund a very small percentage of applications are inefficient uses of money, time, and effort,” according to the paper.
 
Little is known about the demographics of principal investigators, and how well certain age groups do over time in terms of receiving funding and developing valuable research, Crowley said. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences recommends that agencies should collect and analyze data on PIs across the government and through a uniform format that would allow for better analysis and tracking of funding trends.
 
Crowley said the committee members were not expecting agencies and institutions to begin adopting these policies right away, or that they would be easy to implement. He said the committee “hopes the report will start a conversation with all parties involved including universities, federal government, and private groups.”

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