On Oct. 8, in testimony before the House Committee on Science and Technology’s Research and Science Education Subcommittee, prominent witnesses from the scientific community expressed differing views about how the federal government can foster scientific innovation. While witnesses and subcommittee members agreed that supporting “high-risk, high-reward” research was important, there was little consensus about the best mechanisms to encourage groundbreaking science.
Asserting that the National Science Foundation is an “innovation agency,” James Collins, assistant director for biological sciences, detailed the agency’s “history of supporting this research.” Collins argued that, through close relationships with universities, a merit review process and thoughtful grant review, the NSF has been able to identify transformative research. Calling them “stewards” of innovation, he highlighted the work of the agency’s leaders of the grant-review process, known as program officers.
But Gerard Rubin, vice president of Howard Hughes Medical Institute, indicated that traditional project-based funding mechanisms are insufficient to drive innovation. Describing his institute’s investigator program, he said that HHMI’s philosophy is simple: “People not projects.” Through its investigator program, “the institute provides long-term, flexible funding that enables its researchers to pursue their scientific interests wherever they lead,” stated Rubin in written testimony.
The divergent opinions may have stemmed from more basic questions about what constitutes innovative research. While scientists often identify their own research as innovative, there is little agreement on how to identify those projects that will result in new research breakthroughs.
Alluding to this in his opening remarks, Daniel Lipinski, D-Ill., chairman of the subcommittee, posed a more fundamental question: “What exactly is high-risk research?”
Lipinski’s question illicited few answers, but some believe that federal funding agencies are not doing enough to support “high-risk, high-reward” research. U.S. Rep. Vernon Ehlers, R-Mich., said that review committees, like those at many federal agencies, favor cautious research with limited opportunities for “outside-the-box ideas.”
Other witnesses offered recommendations for changing existing review processes. Describing recommendations from a recent report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Neil Lane, professor and senior fellow at Rice University, said it was important to “establish and strengthen policies, programs and targeted funding mechanisms designed to foster potentially transformative research.”
Richard McCullough, vice president of research at Carnegie Mellon University, recommended guidance for reviewers that would indicate what “high-risk, high-reward” proposals would look like. He also suggested “accelerator funds” that can help make a promising project truly innovative.
The NSF has many existing mechanisms in place for promoting and accelerating innovative research, said Collins, adding that program officers identify innovative grants by developing relationships with scientists. Similar to McCullough’s suggestion of “accelerator” funds, program officers may discuss “creativity extensions” with individual investigators whose projects are particularly promising, he said.
As some suggested new mechanisms and programs for “high-risk, high-reward” research, U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., raised concerns about designating specific funding for it, considering the country’s current financial difficulties.
Witnesses however, said that while the original aims of research might not be realized, research is rarely a failure. Lane noted that each project educates new people and creates new technologies. Collins agreed, noting that individuals and companies who fail in reaching their ultimate goal still gain from the experience.