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In defense of serendipity: We cannot manage discovery by voting

Voting reflects the current makeup of our community and defines the common denominator of our imagination. Because we (scientists, administrators, politicians) cannot predict future need nor can we predict which idea will get us to any desired therapy, a certain amount of investment in avant garde hypotheses is essential to our continued success. The NIH has tried its best to put money to good and efficacious use but in doing so, efforts that do not fall within mission relevance and topic areas mandated by the congress, the administration or the "community vote" became a casualty of over-investment in near horizon projects. We must improve the balance between "community selected topics" and investigator initiated ideas. This will ensure the innovation pipeline continues as long as RO1s adhere to strict "best science" criteria (innovative, hypothesis driven, and evidence-based investigation into the mechanisms of development and disease; all broadly defined, whether or not included in a topic area listed to the left of this post). We should leave open a window for the unexpected as we all know that serendipity is the mother of invention.

Comment

Submitted by 3 years ago

Comments (3)

  1. I would agree that the current system of grant review discourages real innovation and risk taking. One alternative might be to set aside some percentage of NIH money to fund investigators, not ideas. I could imagine an NIH Investigator status, somewhat like HHMI, where proven successful mid-career PIs are funded directly for a significant period of time to essentially pursue whatever they wish without having to satisfy a voting committee. This may be perceived as elitist by some and not fair to new PIs, but I would say that one of the best metrics for success is a track record of success. Also, new PIs have many other additional sources of funding that are unavailable to established PIs.

    3 years ago
  2. I strongly disagree with selecting innovators, only from an established investigator pool, as would be the case if one uses track record as a key criterion. Sometimes it is precisely those who are less fettered by old ideas and dogmas that may have the most creative ideas. So why not simply have a mechanism for high risk, high gain applications that in fact is anonymous. Only the idea is reviewed and evaluated independent of any identifiers.

    3 years ago
  3. Raphael Kopan Idea Submitter

    I believe the NIH Merit Award reflects the sentiment expressed by Greg. In my view, expending the Merit Award system is a good idea, but one that should be considered independently from the point I made above.

    3 years ago

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