A Useful Discussion to Start – How to Economize Scientific Research

An editorial from the CEO of the organization formerly known as the American Association for the Advancement of Science offers the first steps along a needed conversation for scientific communities around the world.  Writing in the 11 November edition of Science (registration may be required) Alan Leshner identifies some areas in which he thinks administrative requirements and other processes can be adjusted to everyone’s benefit.  That it required a prolonged series of weakened science budgets to start this conversation is unfortunate, but the talking needs to continue.  (As Leshner notes, the National Institutes of Health started its own discussion last month.)

Among the areas Leshner considers ripe for opportunity:

  • Harmonizing grant procedures (from application through post-award reporting) across federal agencies
  • Adjustments in submission and review procedures (such as preliminary proposals and/or batch reviews) to better manage the decreasing success rates of grant proposals and the associated increase in submissions.
  • Different grant mechanisms than the traditional approach based on project descriptions.  Leshner specifically mentions the NSF’s Accomplishment-Based Renewal, but this new NSF program-manager review process could be another tool in a suite of review options.

While Leshner says “the time is right for a fundamental re-envisioning of the system,” the options he mentions are arguably conservative and incremental.  Bolder thinking should be encouraged and considered.  It’s not just federal research budgets that are under stress.  Facilities, academic positions, and other resources for starting or maintaining research groups are hardly flush.  Given how badly the biomedical community managed the doubling of federal funding and the eventual ending of those increases, it’s long past time for a research enterprise to consider how it can function in a more sustainable fashion.

Like other aspects of the economy, there is a focus on continued growth of scientific research dollars, labs, and researchers (most of them not faculty) as demonstrations of the health of the scientific enterprise.  How can we restructure research teams (and how they are credentialed) in a way that would allow for equivalent research production with fewer resource requirements?  How can we more efficiently share instruments, specimens and other research tools to maximize their use?  There are likely other questions, but even in this economic climate, I don’t see a lot of interest in engaging with them.  Tweaks are nice, but strike me as insufficient by themselves.