Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Some further thoughts on "risky" research and the culture of science

This is just some further thoughts on an old post regarding the New York Times article " Grant system leads cancer researchers to play it safe". In that post I mulled over the idea that the mentoring process for young scientists trains us (as a community) to be hyper-critical and skeptical. Now of course scientists are individuals, and we vary a lot. Indeed there are lots of scientists who tend to be optimists, and take their (and other peoples) data at face value, while others spend their careers taking apart the ideas of others. There is of course room for all of these approaches. We need the creative spark of people to generate new models, and data to test them, and other scientists who test the logic or validity of these ideas and models. This is part of what makes the scientific process work so well. But, how might this affect the potential funding of risky "science"? Given that there are limited resources available to fund science research, if one reviewer of a proposal is highly skeptical of the ideas, while all of the other reviewers like them, will that be enough to have the proposal rejected for funding?

I am certain that if I "polled" many of my fellow scientists, they would all point to at least one proposal they submitted that failed to be funded based on one review, while all of the other reviewers loved it. It is not so different from what going onto Rottentomatoes. There are some movies where many reviewers love it, while others hate it. Indeed I have never seen a movie reviewed where there is complete agreement. Not surprisingly, the same is true for the scientific review process (although I would hope for different reasons).

However, this has all made me think about the differences in the way countries provide public funds for scientific research. In particular, in the U.S., the funding system tends to have both strong "boom-bust" cycles, naturally tied to the economy as a whole, but also strongly tied to fads in scientific research (sometimes called "sexy science"). Now, we are only human, and while nerdly as it may be, scientists can be enamoured by new and very interesting findings. Naturally this leads to many other scientists to want to join into this new area, and when grant proposals are reviewed on this research, the reviewers may themselves be entranced by the ideas, and pin their own hopes for future research successes on these new ideas or methods or approaches.

Indeed in my own field of Genetics, I have watched such transformations occur numerous times in my relatively short experience working in the field. This has happened both due to changes in technology as well as statistical methodology ( more on this in a future posting). In each instance, the same basic pattern emerged. First there was almost unanimous excitement and hope that these new approaches would solve all sorts of persistant problems in the field (for instance finding the set of genes that contribute to disease X). Shortly after, there were a few dissenting voices (largely ignored) that pointed out some of the shortcomings of the approach or method. Then in the next 2-3 years, as more and more people used these approaches or methods (or tested these new ideas), more and more issues were uncovered. And just then, when hope was beginning to fade, a new idea/method/technology was discovered, and so the cycle continued....

So how does all of this affect the funding for "risky research". Honestly I do not know. But I think it is worth considering. Any thoughts?

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