Bold vision doesn’t pay in science but it should

Published in UT San Diego, January 29, 2013

If Galileo had applied for a federal research grant to prove that the Earth was round, he probably would have been turned down. After all, everyone knew the earth was flat, so why invest in research that has no chance of ever amounting to anything?

This is known as the novelty paradox. The bolder the vision, the less likely one’s peers will support it. Scientists seeking federal grants for innovative, breakthrough research projects are penalized during the peer-review process, according to a recent working paper published by Harvard Business School. Evaluators “uniformly and systematically give lower scores to proposals with increasing novelty,” contend the authors of “The Novelty Paradox & Bias for Normal Science: Evidence from Randomized Medical Grant Proposal Evaluations.”

This situation poses a major dilemma for the future of our country’s innovation economy, since many commercial products originate from basic research. And research is often best when it is allowed to wander off onto roads less traveled. If the U.S. is to maintain its competitive edge, mere incremental achievements are not enough. In 2011, National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation grants exceeded $37.9 billion, given to about 40,000 researchers.

In a prior column, we wrote about the importance of entrepreneurs who seek BHAGs, big hairy audacious goals, and we need the same boldness in at least a portion of federally funded research projects.

In their study, the working paper’s four authors tried to measure the novelty of the grant request by studying the descriptive knowledge keywords. Since most federal research grants are awarded through the use of peer evaluations, they worked with a major, unnamed medical research university to study results from the peer review of the first stage of a $1 million grant process related to a major endocrine disease.

One distressing finding was that the “most accomplished (most published) of researchers tended to discount novelty more heavily than the rest of the population,” but then they turned around and discounted novelty slightly less when proposals were more similar to their own area of expertise. They did not focus on Rule No. 217: It’s what you don’t know that you don’t know that will kill you. Their bias was skewed by their own knowledge in the field.

Another disturbing conclusion of the study is that “initial funding assessments can prematurely shut down novel work by only rewarding work within the existing map of science.” The result of that is that “33 percent to 48 percent of scientists who face an initial rejection from funding sources in natural sciences in fact stop working on the rejected line of inquiry subsequent to the rejection.”

In other words, early encouragement is disproportionately important. Think about your child learning to ride a bike.

A recent article in Science magazine notes, “beginning scientists must build on their postdoctoral work, which forces them to continue along already-trodden paths.” Instead, they should be “judged and rewarded only by their demonstrated excellence and their creativity in finding new directions,” argues the author, Anthony A. Hyman, who is director of the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, Germany.

To address the “novelty paradox” issue, NIH has introduced two programs — Innovator and Pioneer Awards — that are given to a handful (usually less than 50) per year, which is minuscule compared with the 40,000 who receive regular funding.

“Precious research funds are being allocated toward more incremental research as compared to high variability and potentially breakthrough efforts,” say the authors of the Harvard Business School working paper. The Feds go for slight and incremental improvements in science that we already understand.

The balance of money, risk and innovation is not an easy one. But this country needs to be sure that there will always be a couple of dollars available to fund Galileo. Otherwise, we will all simply end up sailing off the edge of the Earth.

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