Last week DrugMonkey posted that the NIH ain’t doin’ it right if a certain portion of grants do not fail. In a time of tight paylines, a back-the-sure-thing, nobody-ever-got-fired-for-choosing-Microsoft mentality prevails, and science gets more of the same. Big labs get more grants to grind out lots of incremental papers (“so productive”), while smaller labs get less, thus assuring inadequate productivity for at least another funding cycle (hey, bitter is the new black, so don’t judge me).
In my experience on study sections, reductionist proposals receive the most enthusiasm. Drilling down into a specific cell/pathway/molecule appeals more than looking at the whole animal or tissue level. Apparently, “mechanism” can only be truly delineated at the cellular level. Never mind that no one in my clinic exists as an isolated packet of cells.
I am not saying that such very basic, mechanism-of-life work is unimportant; this type of science has driven a whole world of biomedical advances in the last few decades, and we need to keep funding it. We just should not lose sight of the bigger picture and the need to keep our minds open.
I just got back in town, and I need to catch up on things. This blog post did not top my To-Do List. I was delighted to see this when I logged on this morning, and just had to write:
The motto of science should be “expect the unexpected,” yet reviewers of grants want “the sure thing.”
OK, you should have enough preliminary data to show that you can perform any new or unusual technique (this generally does not include anything in a kit). You should have data to show that you are facing west, so to speak. Not necessarily a peer-reviewed paper, but something supportive (although at least one peer-reviewed paper supporting your idea is generally necessary for an R01 in the present funding climate).
Just don’t forget to look east occasionally, because that might be even more interesting than the sunset. And reviewers, please do not kill a proposal for looking east as well as west.
The next big advance in any field will be completely unexpected – or we would have found it already.