Finally a Good Idea from Francis Collins

Finally a Good Idea from Francis Collins

This is definitely a good move. Hope it is serious, and not an effort to distract those, who are complaining too much about ‘big science’ waste.

James Anderson works at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, but he sounds like an eager venture capitalist when he talks about researchers supported by an agency programme to fund ‘high-risk, high-reward’ grants. Theyre doing work theyve never done before and no one ever has, says Anderson, who directs the NIH’s division of programme coordination, planning and strategic initiatives.

Now there is word that such an approach to funding may become more common at the NIH. On 5 December, agency director Francis Collins told an advisory committee that the NIH should consider supporting more individual researchers, as opposed to research proposals as it does now an idea inspired in part by the success of the high-stakes Pioneer awards handed out by the NIH’s Common Fund.

Its time to look at balancing our portfolio, says Collins, who plans to pitch the idea to NIH institute directors at a meeting on 6 January.


We finished reading the book ‘Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder’ by N. N. Taleb, where he recommended grant agencies to adopt the venture capitalist mindset and look for high-risk-high-return projects. Given that most major breakthroughs in science came from apparently ‘black swan’ discoveries, funding the opposite can only limit unusual discoveries and lead to mediocre science.

Derek Lowe of ‘In the Pipeline’ blog wrote something similar in “NIH Taking on More Risk?” :

I’d like for them to set aside some money for ideas that have a low chance of working, but which would be big news if they actually came through. The high-risk high-reward stuff would also have to be awarded more by evaluating the people involved, since none of them would look likely in the “Tell us exactly what results you expect” mode of grant funding. But I can say this, not having to the be the person who wades through the stacks of applications - sorting those out would probably be pretty painful.

Intuitively, many others propose the same approach. However, discussing such ideas among friends is one thing, but getting it implemented in the highly bureaucratic government agencies is another ball game. Still, expanding the Pioneer grant is possibly the best course of action NIH has at this point. Ecodevoevo blog discusses:

Innovation-stimulation: will it work? Definitely worth a try!

Expanding the program is clearly a move in a good direction. Big projects have their place, but have become as much a reflexive strategy for self- perpetuation as they are truly justified by their results history (which, by and large, isn’t all that good or has reached diminishing returns).

Of course, individual independent investigators are just people, trend- following herd animals like most of us are. Once the new program is in place, every investigator will flock to the trough. Most will propose routine, safe projects even if they assert that they’re ‘innovative’.

Those proposals that really are innovative will involve risk in two main senses. First, they mainly will involve procedures or strategies that are to the area and/or to the investigator, truly new, unclear, or untried. Second, if the work is really innovative, most of it won’t get completed on time, won’t yield much in the way of publications, and – worse – won’t find anything really new.

But is that outcome really ‘worse’? We think just the opposite! If not much is invested in a project, not much is lost if it was truly creative but failed. By contrast much is currently invested in huge projects that are so safe that they hardly generate commensurate returns. Indeed, the reason for the failure of a really exploratory study may provide more useful knowledge than most ‘positive’ studies’ findings. And most potentially innovative ideas are, and turn out to deserve to be, busts. That is why we call the ones that succeed innovative: they can change how we think.

Written by M. //