A Call to Fund the Young and Risky

Experts on academic science say federal systems discourage just the kind of grants that are most needed.
June 4, 2008

A coalition of researchers on Tuesday strongly urged a greater commitment among policy makers, universities and private donors to support scientists early in their careers and encourage potentially "high-risk, high-reward" ventures, offering a series of recommendations that would alter longstanding federal funding and peer review mechanisms.

The recommendations, published in a white paper released by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, are mindful that stagnating funding tends to favor more "conservative," incremental projects that entail lower risk and lower potential rewards. Instead of spending their time as "serial grant writers," said Keith R. Yamamoto, the executive vice dean of the School of Medicine at the University of California at San Francisco, young scientists are eager -- and should be encouraged -- to work on bold new ideas.

They "want to do research that’s not paradigm-extending but paradigm-breaking," he said at a panel announcing the report, ARISE: Advancing Research in Science and Engineering. Yamamoto is part of the group at the American Academy that finalized the paper's recommendations, the Committee on Alternative Models for the Federal Funding of Science. Its chairman, Thomas R. Cech, recently stepped down as president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, where he spearheaded a new grant program aimed specifically at early-career scientists.

"Taxpayer dollars have already been invested in perhaps 30 to 35 years in education for these scientists, after which they compete with perhaps 100 to 200 others" to obtain faculty positions, Cech said. Once there, he continued, "they instead are squirreled away in their offices serving as" -- using the same phrase -- "serial grant writers." He called the state of affairs a "waste" and said that instead, funding mechanisms should promote “transformative research.”

The report stresses that the two prongs of its policy focus -- scientists early in their careers and high-risk research -- are tied together. "The experiences of researchers at the beginning of their careers color and shape their subsequent work," it says. "Researchers who achieve success early gain the confidence, professional reputation, and career commitment that enable them to continue to make important scientific and engineering contributions as their knowledge and skills mature."

Two of the major policy proposals put forth in the report target grants and tenure policies. One-time grants of five or six years, similar to the National Science Foundation's CAREER program, the group concludes, would carry young scientists through their tenure decisions, alleviate the pressure to constantly apply for support and encourage longer-term and higher-risk work. Meanwhile, the report urges research universities to revise tenure policies to keep in mind the merits of well-designed research programs that might not necessarily produce expected or immediate results.

At the same time, researchers on the panel noted that peer review processes should sufficiently recognize collaborative work. The report also points out that scientists starting out their careers would benefit from mentoring, and that institutions should "undertake rigorous self-examination" of cultural barriers that could impede women and minorities from advancing in their research careers.

It also suggests boosting support for program officers at funding agencies so that they can better immerse themselves in the scientific fields through conferences, campus visits and in-depth research.

One recommendation is especially likely to attract resistance from research universities: The suggestion that they eventually cover more (or all) of their faculties' salaries, rather than relying on grant funding, further straining federal agencies. Cech called for "a bit of a rebalancing," arguing that universities needed "more institutional buy-in" to support their researchers.

Among the other policy recommendations in the white paper is for federal agencies to improve their data collection procedures so that researchers can track what happens to investigators who do and do not receive funding for specific proposals.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top