Collegiality and careerism trump critical questions and bold new ideas: A student's perspective and solution

The structure of scientific funding limits bold new ideas


  • Joshua M. Nicholson

    Corresponding author
    1. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, VA, USA
    • Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, VA, USA
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Funding agencies (and journals) seem to be discriminating against ideas that are contrary to the mainstream, leading to leading to the preferential funding of predictable and safe research over radically new ideas. To remedy this problem a restructuring of the scientific funding system is needed, e.g. by utilizing laymen - together with scientists - to evaluate grant proposals.

“The significance of the case seems more to reflect on the general system of apportioning research money. Researchers complain that federal grants are increasingly hard to get, even for high-quality research, yet money seemed to have flowed freely to Dr. Das, who was generating research of low visibility and apparently low quality.” Nicholas Wade, New York Times 2012

As students we are taught principles and ideals in classrooms, yet as we advance in age, experience, and career, we learn that such lessons may be more rhetoric than reality. Whereas discovery and innovation are trumpeted, predictable, and safe research is mostly rewarded 1–4. Indeed, proposing a new or “radical” theory often requires doing so despite the current funding mechanisms and not because of them. The co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, James Watson, was first denied his request to study DNA by his fellowship 5. Similarly, Werner Arber, discoverer of restriction enzymes worked “in a climate of almost total indifference, notably that of the committees and organizations tasked with allocating funds for research” 6. This resistance to fund unorthodox ideas extends to the level of publications and even expression of ideas. Accordingly, famed physicist Freeman Dyson equated expressing his critical views on global warming with having to come “out of the closet” 7. Likewise, Nobel Laureate Luc Montagnier described the resistance to publish contrary ideas as “intellectual terror” 8.

To address this problem, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) have developed agencies with the specific aim of funding new and innovative ideas such as the Transformative-R01 or the CREATIV program. However, despite their promising names and aims, such funds are structurally very similar to typical funding mechanisms, and thus are likely to succumb to the same flaws. Indeed, the canonical granting agencies and transformative agencies both rely upon experts to evaluate and fund new ideas; a review system, which with the creation of these new transformative agencies, the NIH and NSF admit is failing to fund innovative ideas. Arguably, such expert review is needed since many proposals will be highly technical and thus difficult to understand otherwise. Yet, it is experts or established researchers themselves who are generally the most resistant to new ideas, because (i) they helped establish the prevailing views and thus believe them to be most correct, (ii) they have made a career doing this and thus have the most to lose, and (iii) because of #1 and #2 they may display hubris 2–4, 9, 10. If, historically, most new ideas in science have been considered heretical by experts 11, does it make sense to rely upon experts to judge and fund new ideas?

As it stands, our current system may work well in weeding out technically flawed proposals and advancing incremental work, yet truly novel ideas will rarely be funded or even tolerated 1–4. It may, then, be said that you can be funded with the proviso that you follow the group, or you can think differently, but without funding. What a choice for a student!

It is not only what you know, but also whom you know

Granting agencies aim to select new testable ideas to advance science and our understanding of normal physiology and disease. The NIH's mission is, “to foster fundamental creative discoveries, innovative research strategies, and their applications as a basis for ultimately protecting and improving health.” But what they preach is not always what they practice. Indeed, the instructions for writing an R01 grant, the standard grant of the NIH, recommend, “a discrete, specified, circumscribed project.” Other criteria used to evaluate grants act to further de-emphasize innovation and new ideas themselves. Such criteria include the researcher's awards, institution, collaborators, standing, publication record, and likelihood of success. By utilizing this information, grant agencies – inadvertently or not – allow cronyism to infect impartial review. In fact, personally knowing the scientist whom you are reviewing is unabashedly tolerated as many granting agencies even allow proposers to suggest “appropriate” and “inappropriate” reviewers! The idea of choosing people and not projects has been proposed to be a solution to the problem of funding 12. An attractive idea that offers certain benefits such as less time writing grants, but ultimately doomed to fail because of the emphasis on being popular within the scientific community. While such bias and cronyism may not be representative of the entire scientific community, there exist no checks against this besides the integrity or “goodwill” of researchers 2. As a student, I have always had my examinations graded blindly, so as to exclude any bias the professor may have. Why is this not the case when reviewing grants worth millions of dollars?

Between publish or perish and publish and perish

The emphasis on being liked by the scientific community as a prerequisite to survive as a practicing scientist subsequently limits critical exchange in science. This is the case with Peter Duesberg who went from a prestigious 7-year outstanding investigator grant from the NIH to grant-less ever since because he questioned the role of oncogenes in cancer and the role of HIV in AIDS 13. Or Ignacio Chapela, who was initially denied tenure, because he criticized genetically modified crops while his department at UC Berkeley concurrently accepted a $25 million dollar grant from Novartis 14. Consequently, many researchers avoid debate and criticism of other's work because it is bad for their own career and ideas. A cursory look at the literature reveals specific instances where previous work or commentary was ignored because it disagreed with the new publications finding 15, 16. A more thorough analysis of this malpractice shows that clinical trial reports cite less than 25% of preceding trial reports, leading to potential bias 17. Indeed, even when evidence against the established norm is published, it is typically relegated – as assistant news editor of Nature Brian Owens says – to “a journal you've never heard of” 18, 19. These measures ensure that controversy and critical exchange are avoided, and – in a sense – discredited; as if to say the work out of prestigious journals such as Nature or Science is more credible than that in a “lesser” journal. This sentiment was voiced recently by Vincent Detours who – after numerous attempts over many years – published critical work of the prognostic value of genomic signatures in breast cancer. His struggle to publish “negative” data, pushed him to conclude, “one can no longer stay silent about the rather limited self-correction capability of the top tier publishing system (Cell, Nature Genetics, PNAS, etc.), which promoted these studies in the first place” 18. To fix this problem and encourage more work refuting or confirming others a recent poll in Science found that 46% of readers thought the best policy was for journals to publish more of this type of work 20. Thus, if we reward critical papers, critical ideas will flower. In contrast, the lesson being taught to students now is that it is okay to ignore criticism and it is pointless to criticize: what matters most is funding, and the name of the journal where you publish. Indeed, talks at seminars tend to revolve around where your work is going to get published and not the work itself 21.

Such discrimination of contrary ideas by funding agencies and journals attests to the fact that new ideas are, by definition, minorities. But, unlike race or sexuality, scientific majority and scientific minority are dictated by what is funded, and can thus be changed 22. If the NIH were to offer 25 million in grants studying protein X's role in disease, there would immediately be 25 million dollars worth of research towards protein X. Many researchers would then become leaders in this field and would fiercely defend it, so creating a new scientific majority. And vice versa if the NIH were to cut funding for identifying the role of protein X in disease there would instantly be less people studying protein X: a scientific minority. Funding agencies, therefore, have the ability to dictate scientific research and behavior, much like the demand of consumers dictating the marketplace 22, 23. In both cases scientists and businesses alike must follow the money to stay alive. It is quite fitting then, that research themes have been called “fashions”, and “trends” 24, 25.

Mediocrity as the modus operandi in science

The novelty of an idea can be measured by how many ideas and people it contradicts. The acceptance and funding of said idea is thus inversely related to its novelty 26. A product of this system is mediocrity in science is pervasive, evident by the fact that many studies are never read or cited 27, 28. Accordingly, Howard Hughes investigators – who have more time in between grant applications and thus less pressure to gain acceptance – publish more high impact papers than those relying upon funding from the NIH, who have less time and more pressure to win grants 29. Exemplifying this, Jan Klein satirically writes his rules for successful scientific publication, and – I would argue – successful scientific funding. Such rules would be amusing if they were not so tragic; for in the end it is the patients and taxpayers who lose the most. The rules are as follow:

  • 1.“The manuscript must not be a very good one…it must not contain any radically new ideas, untested approaches, discoveries that open new vistas.”
  • 2.“The subject of the paper must be fashionable.”
  • 3.“You must use sophisticated techniques.”
  • 4.“Finally, you must write your paper to conform with the established norm 25.”

In order to remedy scientific problems we must first rectify scientific funding

To return to the ideals we learn about as students, teach in class, and preach to the public, we must fund, not fight, new ideas. Consequently, we must restructure the current scientific funding system, to emphasize new and radical work. Towards this aim grant review by laymen could be utilized, similar to jurors in the United States judicial system. Because there are many things in science that laymen may not understand, the “jury” could be made up of both laymen and scientists. Indeed, the participation of uninformed individuals in a group has recently been shown to foster democratic consensus and limit special interests 30. Lastly, we may seek to avoid the approval of experts altogether. There are currently a handful of different organizations utilizing this approach in what is known as crowd funding (see SciFlies or Eureka Fund) 31. The use of crowd funding has been wildly successful in raising financial contributions to political campaigns, and is beginning to be appreciated for being able to do the same for scientific projects 32. Crowd funding will not only help science in general at a time when success rate for grants is at an all time low (as at present); it will also stir novel ideas into areas of disease research that remain practically stagnant, despite considerable “conventional” funding. If crowd funding can realize its potential, it may prove to be the laymen, not the scientists, who solve one of sciences biggest problems: scientific funding. Only an expert would argue with that solution.


I thank Peter Duesberg (UC Berkeley) for useful comments and suggestions, Gerald Pollack (University of Washington) for his encouragement and helpful ideas, and Jan Klein (Pennsylvania State University) for positive feedback and sheer honesty. Lastly, Yuri Lazebnik (Cold Spring Harbor) proved to be a hallmark of help.