Risk-averse science funding?

Today’s New York Times has an article headlined “Grant system leads cancer researchers to play it safe,” discussing the thesis that, in competing for grant funds, high-risk, potentially transformative ideas lose out to low-risk ideas that will lead to at most  incremental advances.  A couple of comments:

Although the article focuses on cancer research, people talk about this problem in other branches of science too.  When I served on a grant review panel for NSF not too long ago, we were explicitly advised to give special consideration to “transformative” research proposals.  If I recall correctly, NSF has started tracking the success rate of such transformative proposals, with the goal of increasing their funding rate.

Personally, I think this is a legitimate concern, but it’s possible to make too much of it.  In particular, in the fairy-tale version of science history that people (including scientists) like to tell, we  tend to give much too much weight to the single, Earth-shattering experiment and to undervalue the “merely” incremental research.  The latter is in fact most of science, and it’s really really important. It’s probably true that the funding system is weighted too much against high-risk proposals, but we shouldn’t forget the value of the low-risk “routine” stuff.

For instance, here’s how the Times article describes one of its main examples of low-risk incremental research:

Among the recent research grants awarded by the National Cancer Institute is one for a study asking whether people who are especially responsive to good-tasting food have the most difficulty staying on a diet.

Despite the Times’s scrupulous politeness, the tone of the article seems to be mocking this sort of research (and in fact this research in particular).  And it’s easy to do: Expect John McCain to tweet about this proposal the next time he wants to sneer at the idea of funding science at all.  But in fact this is potentially a useful sort of thing to study, which may lead to improvements in public health.  Yes, the improvement will be incremental, but when you put lots of increments together, you get something called progress.

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Ted Bunn

I am an associate professor of physics at the University of Richmond. In addition to teaching a variety of undergraduate physics courses, I work on a variety of research projects in cosmology, the study of the origin, structure, and evolution of the Universe. University of Richmond undergraduates are involved in all aspects of this research. If you want to know more about my research, ask me!

One thought on “Risk-averse science funding?”

  1. Government entities naturally have high risk-aversion, and are often operated by bureaucrats with high risk-aversion. (If they had lower risk-aversion, the administrators would be operating large companies, or even small companies or building startups.)

    While it’s essential to ensure the returns for any project match with the risk taken in undertaking it, it is mathematically feasible to have lower cumulative risk in a series of incremental projects than in one groundbreaking project. Of course, the incremental batch would cost more time, which would also have to be adjusted for.

    Calculating all these trade-offs is much simpler in a publicly held firm where the vast majority of these factors can be weighted and quantified. With government grants, the costs and benefits to other areas would have to be considered (such as the economic effects of producing research that leads to new products or efficiency gains).

    Hopefully the study will pursue some of these avenues as well.

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