Funding must make room for exploration

Scientists often say that you already need to have a result in hand to have a chance at being funded for research. Applications where the results are truly unknown are almost never funded.

Instead, applications succeed when they include slick “pilot data” showing the likely outcome, frame the research in terms of well-known earlier results, and seem certain to lead to a positive result. Failure to reject a null hypothesis is not an option. Replication of other research is almost never funded.

This system is wonderful if the goal is to add one brick at a time to the foundation of what we already think we know. But in many areas of science, what we think we know is wrong. And as many others have noted, the bias against negative results and replication has led some fields to a crisis of false published results.

If we want to get at the nature of things, we need scientists who explore new ideas, even if they don’t come pre-packaged with pilot data.

Times Higher Education has a conversation with Nobel Prize-winning scientist Saul Perlmutter, who “Nobel laureate says scientific breakthrough ‘would not be possible’ today”.

“People forget that what you’re looking for is gigantic surprises and transformations that allow us to do things that we never thought were possible,” he said.
“The only thing we know of that seems to work is to create an environment where people are thoughtful, they’re hopeful and they’re trying many ideas.”
He said that this approach can even be seen among venture capitalists, who only expect a “small fraction” of their investments to be successful.
“You’re looking for those rare, special investments and you have to spread the resources in order to get them,” he said.
Saul Perlmutter. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Over Twitter in the last few weeks, I’ve seen disappointment from several professional colleagues after the rejections of their latest grant applications. The most heartbreaking had reviewers who wrote that their labs “did not have the necessary expertise to carry out the research.” Of course, I know the people, and I know that in each of these cases, these researchers have already published previous work close to their new proposals. They not only have the expertise, I would consider them among the world’s experts.

Think about this kind of comment. I’ve gotten the same thing on my own applications for funding in the past. This is why researchers are driven to include pilot data in their applications, to show that they have already produced results. It’s why researchers apply for funding to do nearly-completed research, so that they can redirect a fraction of the funds to the next project.

Maybe in an environment where the probability of funding were higher, these kinds of comments would be ignored. But take that idea seriously for a moment. Doesn’t it mean that with less funding, we are being even more conservative in what we fund? Doesn’t that make us even less likely to learn something new?

I don’t want to look at the same questions, the same experimental models, again and again. I want to work on new ideas, with a great team of people who have a wide range of backgrounds. It’s what Perlmutter is saying, “create an environment where people are thoughtful, they’re hopeful, and they’re trying many ideas.”

Exploration may not always lead to discovery, but it’s the only thing that does.