Taking risks in research: the NIH grant process

In an article published yesterday, Gina Kolata of the New York Times argued that the scientific grant system stifles innovation by funding only lower-risk projects. Although the article focuses on cancer research, many of the stories resonate with my time in academia. One of the unwritten rules of writing a successful proposal: if you want to be funded, your proposal must demonstrate the results you propose to achieve. In other words, to get the money, you have to show you can do the work by having already done it. The grant would then be awarded after the fact, for continuing already-successful research. This process tends to weed out wild, pie-in-the-sky ideas with little evidence behind them, leaving the scientist to find alternate, start-up funding to test out new ideas.

However, there are different types of grants. Some are smaller awards designed to fund pilot studies. These smaller awards tend to have less strict evaluation processes and are more open to new ideas. If successful within the two-year time frame of the grant, investigators can apply for further funding. But what if it takes 3 years to validate the concept? It’s not uncommon for projects to die from lack of funds.

These struggles in academia overlap with similar dilemmas in industry, as I’ve mentionedbefore. How long do you fund development for a drug before killing the program? What amount of evidence justifies continued funding, burial, or resurrection?