Big science is generally thought of as many labs working on a directed project whose goals have been dictated by a larger organization. The Human Genome Project, for example, is arguably one of the most successful big science initiatives in recent memory. The most recent big science push is the BRAIN Initiative being headed up by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Defense. The goal of the BRAIN Initiative is to develop new technologies that will be applied to better understand how the brain’s neural circuitry works. However, unlike the HGP, the BRAIN Initiative does not have a clear endpoint causing many scientists to question the validity and usefulness of the initiative.
Investigator-initiated, or small, science incorporates the work done in individual labs. These labs typically have R01 or other similar grants from the NIH, which fund scientists asking important biomedical research questions. However, flat budgets and sequestration have made this type of funding scarce. The success rate of grant applications to the NIH fell to 16.8% for research project grants in 2013. This translates to 8,310 competing RPGs funded of the 49,581 total applications submitted. In other words, many individual scientists do not have funding, causing labs to shut down or move abroad while bright and talented young scientists are choosing to leave academia.
So is big science better or worse than small science? Both are beneficial and both advance science in their own unique ways, however big science tends to require much more funding than individual grants, thereby taking opportunities away from individual scientists. The ASBMB has proposed a balanced approach to funding big and small science that favors individual investigators. Each lab is a nucleus of innovation and discovery, and federal funding agencies should continue to make funding these scientists a priority.
So what is the outlook for 2014? Federal agencies will still focus on big science, such as the BRAIN Initiative, which will begin accepting applications for funding in February. However, since each NIH institute and center operates independently of one another, it is possible that individual I/C directors will shift their emphasis to investigator-initiated grants during these times of scarce research funding. But before any of this can be decided, the federal budget must be appropriated, funding levels determined for the NIH, NSF and other federal agencies and then we will see how the money will be distributed to the science community. As always, the ASBMB will advocate for disbursing these funds to individual investigators and hopefully those scientists whose research was slowed or put on hold in 2013 will finally receive their grant money!
Important dates for big versus small science in 2014:
- Early spring – Fiscal 2014 appropriations should be determined, as well as the NIH’s budget.
See what else we’re watching in 2014: