Scientists Frustrated by System that Often Funds Incremental Work over Risk- Taking, Historian Says

Private foundations have helped spur biomedical innovation in the United States at a time when some scientists fear the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is becoming too risk-averse in the kinds of grants it awards and too disposed to fund researchers who already have a proven track record, according to a historian who has been analyzing dozens of recorded interviews with working scientists.


David Caruso

In a talk at AAAS, David J. Caruso, program manager for oral history at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, said interviews with researchers funded by the private Pew Charitable Trusts suggest that many scientists, particularly those just starting their careers, are frustrated by the NIH funding process and its emphasis on research aimed at direct application to human health rather than on basic science.

Too often, the interviewees say, NIH-funded scientists find themselves doing incremental research which, while a valuable part of the process that produces medical advances, does not always encourage the novel, risk-taking ideas that can push the boundaries of discovery.

The interviews with the Pew biomedical scholars were conducted by the Center for Oral History Research at the University of California-Los Angeles Library and are now conducted by the Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF). They are made available for research purposes and are part of a larger oral history archive—some 700 interviews in all—at the Philadelphia-based Foundation.

While the Pew interviews represent a very limited sample of the U.S. biomedical community, Caruso said there is a substantial diversity of disciplines, institutions, and personal backgrounds among those interviewed. "Collectively, you get a lot of richness from the details," he said. The Pew Charitable Trusts funded the oral history project because "it allows us to talk to scientists as they are doing the science," Caruso said.

The interviews with Pew awardees—who are new faculty members who have been in their academic positions from 1 to 3 years—cover such areas as the scientist's childhood and parental influences, education and key teachers, laboratory life and the mentoring process, and other topics related to the scientific life in the United States and abroad. Caruso said the oral history project is funded by Pew through next March, and the Foundation will seek a renewal grant to continue it. In addition to the members of each new class of Pew awardees, Caruso has been interviewing scientists who have served during the past 25 years on the Pew awards advisory committee and also is re-interviewing members of the original Pew classes.

Caruso spoke at an 8 September seminar at AAAS co-sponsored by the AAAS Archives and the Chemical Heritage Foundation's Center for Contemporary History and Policy. He said that foundations such as the Pew Charitable Trusts have been playing an active role in support of basic biomedical science in recent years and often have more flexibility than NIH in their ability to back young researchers with bright but unproven ideas.

The Pew biomedical awards, started in 1985, are unrestricted and provide a researcher up to $60,000 a year for four years.

"The Pew money is really a godsend because it gives investigators the freedom to start new projects and do things that they otherwise could not afford," said one member of the Pew awards advisory committee who was interviewed for the oral history project. "NIH panels tend to be very conservative. You often need preliminary work, preliminary data, and even then you often have to try two or three times before you get your grant. So, this Pew money makes it possible for them to survive as young scientists and be able to carry out their research."

Most of the individual grants awarded by NIH are "R-01" grants, money given to scientists with testable hypotheses in areas already proved to have high research interest. The number of those grants rose from 22,500 in 1999 to 27,000 in 2008, according to Caruso. The NIH also has a category of grants, called "R-21," that are meant to stimulate basic research at the boundaries of scientific knowledge. The number of R-21 grants rose from 700 in 1999 to about 3,700 in 2008. Caruso said. But even then, such grants do not necessarily give younger scientists the opportunities they need, he said. Fewer than half are awarded to first-time applicants.

A Pew scholar from the class of 2000 spoke of roadblocks that can frustrate young scientists seeking even the more traditional and more numerous R-01 grants. The scholar, who is trained in structural biology, wanted to study DNA repair, a topic he had not pursued during his doctoral studies. "It wasn't really changing fields so much [as] it was changing topics," the scholar said. "But if you also changed the methodology you're working on, it's very difficult for you to get funding because you have no track record then." The scholar acknowledged that NIH is limited by its budget, Caruso said, and does not have the opportunity to fund as many exploratory grants as biomedical scientists would like.

The Pew Charitable Trusts tries to take up some of the slack with awards aimed at younger scientists seeking to delve into new areas of science. The review process is quite flexible, according to a member of the Pew advisory committee.

"If the project looks interesting and important, we fund it," the scientist told an interviewer. "We never say that we should do more social biology, or stem cell biology, or some other specific area. That is contrary to the way that science should be performed. Scientists think about issues—not fields of study."

Another committee member said that he later asks "only one single question: What's the discovery? What's the discovery and does it sound as if there was a real contribution made by this person? That's all that matteredÉrather than the number of [scientific] publications."

About 95% of Pew awardees later go on to receive NIH grants as well, Caruso said, and senior scientists involved in the Pew grant process say it is clear that the money from Pew is often critical to the awardees at an early stage in their careers.

In addition to providing a glimpse of how scientists regard the grant-making process, some of the information in the oral history interviews "does speak volumes on the practice and the beliefs of science in the U.S. today," Caruso said. The interviews reflect a real and continuing tension between pursuit of incremental science that lays the foundation for medical advances and the riskier science that pushes the boundaries.

Some of the interviewees, who Caruso preferred to keep anonymous for his lecture, expressed frustration that too much of the work during their careers has involved incremental research. One of them was quite critical of the state of U.S. science. "I think we support mediocre science too much in the United States," the scientist said. "That's what happens when you have an excess of money...Universities build more buildings and they hire more people, and so there is pressure" on members of Congress "to give more money to their constituents."

Interviewees also expressed frustration with the public's misunderstanding of science and the uneven quality of science instruction in primary and secondary schools. Some expressed nostalgia for the days when kids could experiment with chemistry kits that provided a broader range of reagents than now available.

"Like every other kid in those days, I had my own chemistry lab at home," one scientist said, "and I nearly blew myself up a few times... I don't think they [the parents] fully understood the risks I was taking; I'm not sure I did either." But he learned about the scientific process in ways that are less immediately available to today's youth, Caruso said.

The Pew scholars noted the importance of nurturing scientists when they are young and at their most creative. One scholar argued that the lack of a mandatory retirement age for scientists (as for most workers in the United States) makes it more difficult for younger biomedical scientists to make headway at universities.

The issues surrounding the practice of biomedical science in the United States go well beyond the boundaries of NIH, Caruso said. "While scholars might talk about the death of biomedical innovation in the United States," he said, and "while there might be some problems in the system, it's clearly a system that can be fixed. But it can't be fixed just at where some scientists believe is the root of the problem—NIH."

Achieving the proper balance between incremental and risky research will require a broader approach, Caruso said, that involves all organizations that provide money to biomedical researchers. Ultimately, all are working toward a similar goal, he said, but they aren't necessarily talking to each other. They need to be "creating new ways to fund science and pushing in new and different directions," he said.