Science News

July 5, 2008

Strategies for nurturing science’s next generation
By Thomas R. Cech

“Woe be on woe…, frenzy of the mind distraught.” Like the wailing chorus in a Sophoclean tragedy, today’s academic research scientists are constantly bemoaning their funding fate. 

No wonder — the NIH budget has declined in real dollars for five consecutive years, and the NSF’s substantial budget increase committed by the America COMPETES Act has gone unfunded. But in addition to concerns about budget levels, we need to be concerned about how federal research funds are distributed. These latter issues provide the topic of a new study by a committee of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Our report is entitled ARISE: Advancing Research in Science and Engineering. 

While numerous matters concerning mechanisms of federal funding of research are worthy of analysis, our committee chose to focus on two areas that are broadly acknowledged as being particularly endangered. 

First is the difficulty assistant professors face in obtaining stable funding for their research. The nation invests 25 to 30 years in the education of these faculty, who then compete with perhaps a hundred other applicants to land a position; finally, when they should be in their laboratories making discoveries and in classrooms training the next generation, they are driven to their offices to become serial grant-writers. And their students and postdoctoral fellows, listening a bit too seriously to their mentors’ travails, start pondering alternative careers. 

The second issue: As research funds get tighter, review panels shy away from high-risk, high-reward research, and investigators adapt by proposing work that’s safely in the “can-do” category. The clear danger is that potentially transformative research — that which has a chance to disrupt current complacency, connect disciplines in new ways or change the entire direction of a field, but at the same time incurs the very real possibility of failure — finds scant support.

Our scientific leaders in Washington are well aware of these pressing issues, and they have taken action within their considerable constraints. At the NIH, first-time grant applications with scores just outside the funding line are frequently rescued. Potentially transformative research is supported through the Pioneer Awards at NIH, although to a very small extent, and NSF has developed plans to encourage such research. 

Thus, some ARISE recommendations reinforce what agencies are already predisposed to do, and hopefully will give them additional fortitude for doing so. For example, the NIH is already considering shorter grant applications emphasizing potential impact and restricting the amount of methodological detail. And its Pioneer Awards program puts greater emphasis on previous inventiveness of the researcher who proposes bold new directions. Other recommendations provide fresh ideas. Our meetings with early-career faculty revealed that obtaining a second major federal research grant, or a competitive renewal of the first grant, is often as much of a career bottleneck as the first grant. So we recommend that review panels be instructed to evaluate applications by career-stage–appropriate criteria, taking into account the time it takes to build a research team. 

Implementing such recommendations takes money. From where will it come? The committee decided not to distract from its message about modes of funding by tackling budgetary issues; in short, we strongly believe that early-career faculty and potentially transformative research deserve priority independent of whether budgets are flat or increasing. Each agency should examine its entire portfolio (not just individual research grants, but also large projects and intramural programs) and redirect funds from areas that are underperforming.

The report’s most radical recommendations are to universities, which are urged to take more responsibility for faculty salaries. This is not to say that recharging salaries to research grants is bad. To the contrary, American research universities and medical school faculties have been built on such federal support, to everyone’s benefit. But medical schools have found that they can establish new programs with little institutional commitment: Soft-money faculty are hired and then write grants to obtain even 100 percent of their salaries, the stipends and tuition payments for graduate students, and indirect costs to help repay the debt on the research building, all without much institutional backup should they suffer a lapse in funding. That system weighs heavily on early-career faculty. When the risk of a grant not being funded means no salary and no job, it inhibits high-risk, high-reward grant applications. Rebalancing of responsibilities is needed, in small steps and with advance warning to avoid disrupting the system. Indeed, in times of constricted budgets it is particularly important for academic scientists to ARISE and advocate some changes in the priorities of federal research funding. 



June 11, 2008

US universities may have to chip in more for researchers' salaries
By Gene Russo

Last week saw the publication of yet another report on troubling trends in US science and engineering research. Sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, ARISE: Advancing Research In Science and Engineering sounds a familiar refrain: universities and government should provide better support to early-career faculty members, and should encourage high-risk, high-reward research. Specific recommendations include creating multi-year awards for early-career faculty members, strengthening mentoring programmes, reconsidering promotion and tenure policies, and investing more in grant-reviewing officers. But unlike most reports of this ilk, ARISE does not request more government funding. Tom Cech, president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and chair of the committee behind the document, says ARISE focuses on "modes and mechanisms" of improvement rather than a funding infusion. If the panel wants Congress to take the report seriously, this is a wise move — too often, lawmakers receive recommendations that simply advocate more money as the solution.

And in what Cech calls the committee's "boldest recommendation", the report says that universities should pay a greater proportion of the salaries of faculty members, rather than forcing investigators to rely almost entirely on government funds. This might be heresy to many university administrators, but it would help early-career researchers to avoid the ultra-competitive federal funding pool.

It could also provide an incentive for more practical planning. Consider places such as Florida, where local and state funding have sparked numerous bioscience initiatives. Administrators there expect newly hired young faculty members to support themselves with federal money once their multi-year start-up packages end (see Nature 449, 371; 2007). Given the current trends, this means that many good scientists will struggle when the purse-strings are cut. Universities and institutions would be wise to rethink the extent to which they incorporate salary costs into their initiatives. The ARISE report's most heretical idea is one that merits serious consideration.


Chronicle of Higher Education

June 4, 2008

Universities Should Spend More of Their Own Money on Young Researchers, American Academy Says
By Jeffrey Brainard

Washington - Universities need to cut back on faculty positions solely supported by outside grants because grant-dependent scientists are reluctant to embark on risky --but potentially groundbreaking -- research, according to a blue-ribbon panel of university presidents and Nobel laureates.

That's the most startling conclusion of a report released on Tuesday by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The report also repeats a now widely shared diagnosis of what ails American science: a tight federal budget that has made it ever tougher for young scientists to win grants from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.
The panel was led by Thomas R. Cech, president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and included these university presidents or chancellors: France A. Cordova of Purdue University, C.D. Mote Jr. of the University of Maryland at College Park, and Mark S. Wrighton of Washington University in St. Louis.

The proposal that universities scale back "soft money" research positions, in which faculty members are expected to raise through external grants their entire salaries and other research costs, takes a stand on a controversial trend. At academic medical centers, most scientists are now financed through soft money, which has helped universities expand their research activities by stretching institutional funds.

But the resulting pressure on those scientists to win grants "puts a disproportionate burden on early-career faculty and discourages risk taking," the report says. Researchers are more likely to propose conservative, incremental research projects rather than bold ideas with a high risk of failure.

The report encourages universities to pay a larger share of the salaries but doesn't say how. That proposal will be a tough sell, as many research universities argue that they are already paying for a growing share of total research costs, partly because of regulatory mandates and other policies of the federal government.

Among the report's other recommendations for helping young investigators:
  • Federal science agencies should hold research institutions accountable for developing formal mentoring programs for junior researchers, including coaching in writing grant proposals.
  • Universities and agencies providing grants should extend financing and provide other "appropriate support mechanisms" to sustain tenure-track faculty with children, including stipends for child care while primary caregivers are away from home for professional-development activities.

All federal science agencies should consistently collect and analyze demographic data on grant applicants and recipients, a key to tracking how early-career scientists are doing. The report, "Arise: Advancing Research in Science and Engineering: Investing in Early-Career Scientists and High-Risk, High-Reward Research," is available online. 



June 4, 2008

U.S. science: Not enough funding or risk-taking research
By Dan Vergano

U.S. science dominance faces threats from a lack of ground-breaking research and too little funding for young scientists, a blue-ribbon panel said Tuesday.

In the American Academy of Arts and Sciences report, a committee headed by Howard Hughes Medical Institute chief Thomas Cech warned that too much science funding goes to established researchers making only incremental advances, rather than high-risk, high-reward experiments by young investigators.

"The nation needs to do a better job of attracting 'the best and the brightest' to embark on careers as science and engineering faculty," says the report, noting the average age of investigators receiving their first National Institutes of Health grant is now 42.

Too many grants go to continue existing experiments rather than support new ideas, say report committee members. 

"We have to risk failure to succeed. That's where the real rub is," said report committee member Neal Lane of Rice University, a former presidential science advisor. 



June 6, 2008

Encourage Risk, Help Young Researchers, Panel Advises
By Constance Holden

Tight budgets have done more than restrict research; they're damaging morale by making people afraid to take chances, just when it's more important than ever to invest in what could be "transformative" research, a new report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences argues. "The constant hunt for dollars is fostering conservative thinking" and thus making a bad situation worse, according to a panel headed by Thomas Cech, president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Maryland. 

Formed to look at "alternative models for the federal funding of science," the 22-person committee "quickly drilled down" to two messages, says panel member Keith Yamamoto of the University of California, San Francisco: the need to foster early-career scientists and to encourage high-risk research. Released this week, the white paper Advancing Research in Science and Engineering is styled as a follow-on to a National Academy of Sciences report (Rising Above the Gathering Storm) issued in 2005. "This report addresses a very serious set of problems," says Robert Berdahl, president of the Association of American Universities in Washington, D.C. 

The panel notes that young investigators are struggling as training times lengthen and competition for grants gets tougher. The statistics are "scary," Yamamoto says: In 1980, 86% of new faculty members won a grant the first time they applied for one; now only 18% do. At the same time, they're getting older: The average Ph.D. gets his or her first real job at age 38 and first R01-type grant at 42. 

It's time to encourage the next generation by various means, including supplying daycare for their young children and offering generous first-time grants that will keep a researcher afloat through tenure review time, the panel says. 

In what Cech calls its "single most controversial recommendation," the report says institutions should find ways to help researchers with their salaries rather than relying on them to support themselves entirely with grant money--an arrangement that makes them more risk averse. The report eschews calls for increased funding, focusing instead on how to get the most out of existing research dollars. One suggestion to universities: "Limit excessive building programs" in order to make more money available for promising investigators. 


The Financial Times

June 3, 2008

Scientists criticise Congress for low funding
By Rebecca Knight

America’s dominant position in technological innovation is at risk unless universities and federal agencies invest more in young scientists and transformative research, according to a report released on Tuesday by a group of prominent scientists.

The report, sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, says tight funding has squeezed research budgets for scientists early in their careers.

The report is also critical of “conservative thinking” in federal agencies that discourages scientists from taking risks, and stifles research that may lead to radically new technologies.

“When a commodity is scarce, people for whatever reason become more conservative,” said Thomas Cech, president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, who worked on the report. “When the commodity is research funding, people are more reluctant to support highly adventuresome work.”

The US is the world leader in research and development but there are signs its status is slipping. According to last year’s Georgia Institute of Technology study of high-technology indicators, the US ranks second to China in export of high-technology products. 

For three years, the budget for the National Institutes of Health, which funds most biomedical research in the US, has been flat or, adjusting for inflation, down.

Between 1998 and 2003 Congress doubled the NIH’s budget from $13.7bn to $27.1bn. Encouraged by the increase in science spending, the number of young people choosing careers in medical research also rose. But in 2004 the White House called for reduced spending to compensate for tax cuts and a rising deficit. The surge in the number of scientists, coupled with the budget crunch has created a huge imbalance between supply and demand for grants.

This partly explains why the average age for first-time recipients of the NIH’s primary research grants today is 42.4, compared with 37.2 in 1980 and 39 in 1990. This has been most detrimental to those young scientists who are starting their own laboratories, according to Mr Cech. “Their grants are being reviewed by panels that are also looking at grants from more senior scientists with established labs, who have a steady stream of productivity,” he said. “This could be one of the most creative times in the [junior investigator’s] entire scientific career, but instead they’re squirrelled away in their offices furiously typing up grant proposals.” 


GenomeWeb Daily News

June 3, 2008

AAAS: Future Crop of Researchers and Trail-blazing Science May Wilt Without Special Focus
By a GenomeWeb staff reporter

If the United States wants to propel the kind of technology that will give it the continued preeminence in the sciences, particularly in the life sciences, that it has enjoyed over most of the past century, then it needs to focus more resources and energy targeting and supporting younger researchers and bolder science, The American Academy of Arts and Sciences said today. 

Early-career researchers and trail-blazing ideas are being suppressed in this era of federal belt-tightening, when bureaucracies try to make the safe, sound funding judgment, the AAAS said in a white paper released today that it hopes will get people talking. 

Early career scientists have a harder time than their more senior colleagues obtaining grants “in what should be one of the most productive stages of their careers,” according to the AAAS paper, which is called ARISE – Advancing Research in Science and Engineering.

Research that can generate the big ideas that “disrupt complacency and conventional thinking” also has been slighted, because when resources are slim reviewers tend to go with the tried-and-true projects, according to ARISE. 

The Committee on Alternative Models for the Federal Funding of Science, which included academics and government and private foundation officials, produced the report and said that boldness in science withers in times of want because of the “natural tendency to give highest priority to projects they deem most likely to produce short-term, low-risk, and measurable results.”

Avoiding risky investments is a ‘basic human reaction’ to lower funding levels, explained Thomas Cech, who is director of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and chair of the ARISE committee, in a press conference today. 

“If there’s not much research funding around, we worry about funding research that might not work. Instead we look around to find research that may offer useful, but incremental gains,” Cech added. 

Cech also argued that researchers are frequently “holed up in their offices working as serial grant writers.”

This phenomenon of “serial grant writing has a really corrosive effect,” said committee-member Keith Yamamoto, a gene transcription researcher at the University of California, San Francisco. Spending too much time trying to gain money distances scientists from their research, and keeps them from “spending time with their students, mentoring them,” Yamamoto said today. 

“Students in the lab watching this newly minted faculty member grinding through this process then become discouraged” themselves about their chances in the field and “sets up a self-reinforcing set of circumstances.” 

The committee combed through records over the past thirty or forty years and found that the average age for first-time awardees of grants from the National Institutes of Health’s primary research grants is rising, and that the funding rate for new investigators is lower than that of established recipients of NIH funding. 

The overall funding rate for all RO- equivalent awards was 23.6 percent in 2007, while for new investigators it was 18.5 percent and for established investigators it was 26.1 percent. 

Since 1980, the committee found, the share of first-time investigators winning these grants “declined steadily” from nearly 33 percent to 25 percent in 2006. 

The committee found that even during the doubling of the NIH budget in between 1997 and 2004, the overall proportion of new investigators “remained essentially constant,” and abated in the years of lesser federal funding through 2007. 

Transformational science of the high-risk, high-reward variety that the committee said the US needs to promote more of is more difficult to track than grants, as are the ages at which scientists receive them. 

For uniformity, the AAAS committee agreed with the National Science Board, which defined transformational research as being “driven by ideas that have the potential to radically change our understanding of an important existing scientific or engineering concept or leading to the creation of a new paradigm or field of science or engineering.” Transformational research also challenges current understandings and offers a “pathway to new frontiers,” according to the NSB. 

A 2007 survey of investigators by the NSF found that while more than 56 percent of researchers who responded believe that NSF welcomes transformative research proposals, over half also found little of what they would call transformative research among the proposals they had reviewed. 

The committee also offered a number of recommendations for government and university stakeholders. 

First, early-career scientists should be “made a priority government-wide,” the white paper advises. There is a need for grant programs that target early-career faculty and for strengthening existing programs that already exist, it said. 

Special attention needs to be given to early-career faculty during merit reviews of regular grant programs, and there ought to be career-stage appropriate expectations for grant funding, as well as seed funding for these junior researchers, said AAAS. 

For universities, the AAAS committee advises developing or strengthening mentoring programs to encourage early-career faculty, reconsidering promotion and tenure policies, and addressing the needs of primary caregivers with families. 

The only recommendation the report holds for private foundations was that they should “spread the wealth and cap the number of start-up and first awards made to a single investigator.”

In order to push the kind of high-risk, high-reward science the AAAS wants to see more of, government should look into targeted programs such as grant mechanisms and policies that can foster transformative research and establish specialized metrics to evaluate the success of these programs. Application and review processes could be strengthened so that they would better appreciate high-risk research projects, said the committee. 

The government also should encourage program officers to become and remain more involved in the communities that they fund, which requires an adequate administrative budget that should not be at the cost of research. 

According to the paper, more demographic data on applicants and principal investigators needs to be collected and analyzed so that more is known about whom and what is being funded. The non-uniform method for tracking grantees today “hinders efforts to analyze funding trends,” AAAS said. 

Many of the proposals in the paper were outline a month ago at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science held in Washington, DC. 


Chemical & Engineering News

June 5, 2008

Supporting Research and Researchers 
Report calls for greater focus on early-career faculty, high-risk science

By Rochelle F. H. Bohaty

Early-career faculty and high-risk, high-reward research warrant more support, according to an American Academy of Arts and Sciences report released at a press conference on June 3 in Washington, D.C. The report, "Advancing Research in Science & Engineering" (ARISE), provides specific recommendations for actions that federal agencies, universities, and private foundations can take to move in that direction.

ARISE is concerned with more than funding. It recommends, for example, more formal mentoring programs and changes in the tenure process. The report also recommends that universities develop policies that acknowledge the additional challenges confronted by early-career faculty who are also becoming parents.

In addition, the report implores federal agencies to solicit more high-risk research proposals that stand a chance of having higher payoffs than low-risk research more likely to have positive but less significant results.

Early-career faculty and risky—but potentially transforming—research projects play a critical role in the U.S.'s ability to compete globally, noted Thomas Cech, chair of the ARISE report committee and outgoing president of Howard Hughes Medical Institute, at the press conference. For that reason, he said, these areas are deserving of more federal funding. Even if the overall federal research budget does not increase, the report recommends that federal agencies review current programs and redistribute funding to programs with the largest impact on these two areas.

One potentially controversial aspect of the ARISE report is the recommendation that universities assume greater salary responsibilities for faculty instead of expecting them to rely as heavily as they do now on grants to pay for their own salaries and the salaries of those who work for them. Because this could shift salary costs dramatically toward universities, committee member Keith R. Yamamoto of the University of California, San Francisco, , stressed that such a transition would have to be gradual.

Because early-career faculty often struggle to obtain grants, federal agencies should offer large multiyear awards to this group, according to the report. It says the grants should focus on merit reviews that are better tailored for specific career stages.

The ARISE report committee, which includes representatives from academe, foundations, industry, and government, has already made visits to Capitol Hill to motivate Congress to facilitate implementation of their recommendations. For the report to have a real impact, however, the committee is calling on the research community to act on and advocate for the actions cited in the report. 


Bloomberg News

June 6, 2008

Young Scientists, Risky Studies Promised $1 Billion
By Avram Goldstein

The National Institutes of Health said it will set aside more than $1 billion for young scientists and “high-risk” studies that may someday lead to medical breakthroughs. The Bethesda, Maryland, agency, the world's largest sponsor of medical research, said today in a statement that it will change the way grant applications are reviewed and use money within its budget over the next five years.

After doubling from 1998 to 2003, NIH funding has stagnated in recent years, pushing the youngest and boldest researchers to the back of the funding queue and driving some to pursue other interests, scientific groups say. The average age for first-time recipients of NIH research grants has risen to 42, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences said in a report this week. 

The money being set aside is a “small and symbolic move in the right direction, but more will be needed,” said Leslie Berlowitz, the academy's president and chief executive officer, in a telephone interview today. “American competitiveness in the biological sciences is at risk, and we're losing a whole generation of young people who are getting discouraged.” The 69-page report from the academy, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based nonprofit group, urged the government to create a program giving multiyear awards to young scientists as a way to preserve U.S. leadership in medical research. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a Chevy Chase, Maryland, philanthropy that is one of the largest in the U.S., said yesterday it would create a $7.1 million fund for similar purposes. 

Risk of Avoiding Risk 

The concern is “about the risks of not taking risks” in a time of tight budgets, said Jeremy Berg, director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, part of NIH, in an interview today. “The NIH review system has a reputation for being overly conservative,” and the agency will train reviewers “to turn down their skepticism,” he said. 

“If you only support things that are sure to work, you will get things that are sure to work but not the things that change the world and win Nobel Prizes,” said Berg, co-chairman of an NIH task force on innovation.

The proportion of NIH research applications being funded has declined to 24 percent in 2007 from 32 percent in 2003. For fiscal 2009, which begins in October, President George W. Bush proposed a $29.5 billion NIH budget, about the same as this year's spending plan. 

In March, a group of medical schools and teaching hospitals said stagnant public funding of U.S. medical research is slowing progress in fighting diseases and pushing young scientists into other fields. 

Junior Researchers 

Projects proposed by junior researchers, in particular, face delays or go unfunded because of the NIH budget crunch, according to a statement from the group. Its members are Harvard, Brown, Duke, Ohio State and Vanderbilt universities, the University of California, Los Angeles and the hospitals of Partners Healthcare in Boston. 

In addition to slower growth for the NIH budget un

der the Bush administration, inflation has cut NIH's spending power 13 percent since 2003, further threatening scientific advances, the group said. The newest generation of medical investigators is increasingly attracted to work for drug companies because of the uncertainties of NIH-funded academic research, young researchers have said. “We are spending 20-plus years training people, and to make such an investment in their education and have less than 25 percent of them get a grant is an unproductive way for the country to proceed with scientific creativity,” Berlowitz, of the academy, said. 


Lafayette Journal and Courier

June 6, 2008

Report: Fund more radical research
Purdue's Córdova part of committee issuing science recommendations

By Brian Wallheimer

Increasing the amount of money that government and private organizations pump into university research isn't always an option. So the American Academy of Arts and Sciences believes a new approach should be taken: Shift some of the money they do have to younger researchers and more radical ideas.

"To have science, you have to risk that it will be unsuccessful," said Leslie C. Berlowitz, president and chief executive officer of the academy.

The recommendations were included in a paper released this week, called "ARISE: Advancing Research in Science and Engineering." Purdue President France Córdova was part of the committee that created the report, but she was unavailable for comment this week.

Ruben Aguilar, assistant professor of biological sciences at Purdue, said he has had a very difficult time even finding time to work in his lab because of funding concerns. "Eighty percent of the time or more is dedicated to finding ways to find money instead of doing research," Aguilar said. "You are less adventurous. You try to do what is going to give you a payoff."

That's a major theme of the report. Scientists, fighting over a limited pool of money, aren't coming up with high-risk proposals that have the opportunity to result in big rewards because funding agencies don't want to fund something that fails. That keeps research from advancing as fast as it could, said Jeffrey Bolin, associate provost for research in Purdue's College of Science.

"It has been difficult to get a new project started when the budgets are flat," Bolin said. "The system frustrates that highly creative or innovative proposal."

Recommendations from the report include ideas for federal agencies, universities and private foundations.

For federal agencies, it includes:
  • Create funding for early career faculty.
  • Provide funding for early career faculty working on new ideas.
  • Develop policies that extend grants or other support for researchers who are primary caregivers.
  • Develop standards that give high-risk research a better chance to obtain funding.
  • And establish new programs only if there is enough money to spread around so researchers aren't writing pointless grant requests.

For universities, the report calls for:
  • Developing or strengthening mentoring programs for early career faculty.
  • Reconsidering promotion and tenure policies for early career faculty.
  • Addressing the needs of primary caregivers; taking more responsibility for funding faculty salaries, students' stipends and research space.
  • And including maintenance costs when raising funds to build new research space.

For private foundations, the report suggests providing caps for first-time awards to a researcher to spread money to more people.

Berlowitz said funding younger faculty is especially important because it will show those interested in science fields that they can get to work right away, instead of waiting years for research grants.

"We have to be concerned about people who are educated for a really long time and can't get research support," she said.