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Changing the System?

Tim Harford's new book, Adapt, is all about success and failure of various projects, says In the Pipeline's Derek Lowe. In the most recent installment published in Slate, Harford discusses biomedical research and how NIH funds grants. "The NIH's expert-led, results-based, rational evaluation of projects is a sensible way to produce a steady stream of high-quality, can't-go-wrong scientific research. But it is exactly the wrong way to fund lottery-ticket projects that offer a small probability of a revolutionary breakthrough. It is a funding system designed to avoid risks," Harford writes. The author goes on to praise the way the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's investigator program funds grants, which is to fund "innovative people" and letting them try things that could be risky, as opposed to asking them what they plan to discover, Lowe says. "Funding research in this style has been advocated by many people over the years, including a number of scientific heroes of mine, and the Hughes approach seems to be catching on," he adds. Such a funding system isn't easy to implement, because it's not just about letting a bunch of famous people have a bunch of money, Lowe says. Rather, it's about finding people with good ideas "and the nerve to pursue them," he adds.