Current research funding trends discourage innovative thinking, according to a new essay in a special issue of Nature. The essay, written by four early-career scientists who have been named by the World Economic Forum as part of a group of scientists under the age of 40 who “play a transformational role in integrating scientific knowledge into society for the public good,” says that the “scientific enterprise is stuck in a catch-22,” with researchers charged with advancing promising new questions, but receiving “support and credit only for revisiting their past work.”
The authors say that their most striking common challenge is “barriers to achieving impact,” in that their research “often led us to questions that had greater potential than our original focus, typically because these new directions encompassed the complexities of society. We realized that changing tack could lead to more important work, but the policies of research funders and institutions consistently discourage such pivots.”
One of the paper’s co-authors, Gerardo Adesso, a professor of mathematical physics at the University of Nottingham, said in a statement that the key is allowing scientist to “pivot,” or to shift their focus during their career. Funders and institutions often hamper this, however, questioning researchers with no track record in the new area they want to explore, he said.
“We are not saying that scientists should dabble,” the essay argues. “Executing a pivot should still require conviction and risk, but the current strictures are too tight. Enabling early-career researchers to change trajectories is necessary to encourage the highest-impact research. Theories of brain plasticity and team productivity support this. Alongside specialization, diverse and varied experiences foster discoveries and promote the decision-making skills that are needed to lead research.”
In addition to promoting the pivot, the essay advises institutions to emphasize peer-review training, which it says could eventually change institutional cultures. “Equipping scientists with skills for more nuanced appraisal will help them to consider varied attributes, particularly how to address complex societal challenges and to evaluate broader interdisciplinary questions.”
“The greatest risk is that innovation will be stifled by failing to invest in the best emerging scientists, who are approaching the peak of their creativity,” the authors conclude.
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