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Science Editor-in-Chief Highlights Need for Steady Science Funding

In an editorial in the 26 August issue of the journal Science, Jeremy Berg, the journal's 20th editor-in-chief, examines the importance of funding science steadily, with predictable budget cycles that allow science-funding agencies to do long-term planning that research projects typically require.

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Jeremy Berg

Science Editor-in-Chief Jeremy Berg | AAAS

Berg offers a new tool that allows users to analyze alternative funding scenarios, applying it to show how "boom and bust" cycles in funding processes can create inefficiency.

"As we, as a nation, support science," Berg said, "we should support it in the most cost-effective way. And we will, in turn, benefit from the progress that such a steady approach creates."

Congressional appropriations bills that fund U.S. science agencies can be generous one year, and quite limited the next. Thus, the likelihood that applications submitted to funding agencies in a given year will be funded depends largely on previous years' decisions.

These fluctuations have important consequences.

"Outstanding applications that would have been funded one year go unsupported the next year," Berg writes, "so that potentially ground-breaking research may be missed for arbitrary reasons of timing."

Berg, along with many others in the scientific community, advocates for a steadier approach — one that could create more success not only in terms of numbers of strong grants funded, but also in terms of time saved on grant applications written and peer-reviewed to support the same amount of research.

To pave the way for such an approach, Berg's tool allows users to evaluate how basic features of the grant-funding processes, like past appropriation levels, influence grant success rates. The tool is discussed today on his blog, Sciencehound, with more posts on the topic to follow.

Using this tool, Berg accurately reproduced the dramatic drop in the likelihood of grants being funded that was observed in the early 2000s, after the National Institutes of Health budget stagnated. Compared to previous years, when the NIH budget was doubled, one-third fewer new grant applications were likely to be funded during this time.

"The success of the model supports the hypothesis that basic features of grant-funding processes were responsible for this drop rather than changes in NIH policies," Berg writes.

"Outstanding applications that would have been funded one year go unsupported the next year, so that potentially ground-breaking research may be missed for arbitrary reasons of timing."

Jeremy Berg, Science Editor-in-Chief

If Congress had increased its appropriation to the NIH at a constant rate during this same period, the year-to-year variability in the likelihood that a grant proposal would be funded would have been substantially reduced, Berg's model confirms. Not only that, but about 1,300 fewer applications per year would have needed to be written and peer-reviewed to support the same amount of research.

With a more stable funding stream, Berg writes, "the system would have been more equitable on a year-to-year basis."

While Berg notes that steady spending increases are important across many sectors, "[t]he multiyear nature of science funding provides an additional compelling argument for the implementation of longer-term science budget planning by the scientific community and the government."

Berg was named by the AAAS Board of Directors to serve as Editor-in-Chief of the Science family of journals, beginning in July 2016. He also serves as Associate Senior Vice Chancellor for Science Strategy and Planning in the Health Sciences, Professor of Computational and Systems Biology, and Professor of Chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh.

At his first-ever AAAS Colloquium Series presentation on 25 August, Berg discussed his career in science. Within the scientific community, he is perhaps most widely known for his work on zinc finger proteins, which can be engineered to target specific DNA sequences and are proving useful in therapeutic and research capacities. Berg successfully predicted the three-dimensional structure of TFIIIA-type zinc finger domains prior to the experimental determination of their structures. He has also been very active in science and science policy communication through a variety of channels.