Why the Medical Research Grant System Could Be Costing Us Great Ideas

Why the Medical Research Grant System Could Be Costing Us Great Ideas

The current system favors low-risk research. If you’re going to fund only a small percentage of proposals, you tend to favor the ones most likely to show positive results. You don’t want to have to defend null findings as a “waste of money.”

The current system favors experienced researchers over new ones. They have thicker curriculum vitae, more preliminary data and name recognition. Moreover, they know how to work the system. At this point in my career, I know how to write multiple grants efficiently. I’m better at it than I used to be.

The current system can also be biased against women and minorities in ways that could keep them out of funding range. The system is not blinded, and many studies have shown that even after controlling for other factors, the ways in which grants are discussed, scored and funded can favor men over women, and whites over minorities.

If researchers are getting into the top 10 percent more than others based on such factors, especially with less and less money available, many great proposals — and many great researchers — are being sidelined inappropriately.

We may be missing out on a lot of excellent, and perhaps novel, work that can’t break into the top 10 percent because of structural problems. There are things we could do to fix that. One might be, of course, to increase funding across the board. John Ioannidis has proposed that we fund researchers, not research. A group of informaticists from Indiana University has suggested a percentage of funding be put to all scientists for a vote.

Other solutions are more radical. One might involve a modified lottery. The current system seems to do reasonably well at discriminating between “bad” and “good” grants. Once those good ones are put aside, we might do better by assigning funding through chance. Ferric Fang and Arturo Casadevall, who are researchers and journal editors, have proposed that such a system could reduce bias and increase diversity among researchers, suggesting that seniority and other factors still play too large a part in funding decisions.

They make the case that we already have a de facto lottery now, except it’s not random, and therefore unfair.

The current granting system doesn’t just fund the researchers of today — it also steers the careers of tomorrow. Should it fail, the repercussions will be felt for decades.

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