Our broken grant system

The New York Times has a piece up highlighting some of the fundamental flaws in the cancer research grant system. In short, they find that it tends to fund unambitious, incremental research proposals that are unlikely to fail, yet also unlikely to result in significant progress toward curing cancer. I thought this passage was particularly poignant:

“Scientists don’t like talking about it publicly,” because they worry that their remarks will be viewed as lashing out at the health institutes, which supports them, said Dr. Richard D. Klausner, a former director of the National Cancer Institute.

But, Dr. Klausner added: “There is no conversation that I have ever had about the grant system that doesn’t have an incredible sense of consensus that it is not working. That is a terrible wasted opportunity for the scientists, patients, the nation and the world.”

John Hawks has some clever and good commentary on the situation, bringing in some evolutionary theory about search space and fitness peaks to support the point that yes, we’re funding the wrong sorts of grant proposals when we go for timid, incremental projects given our current state of knowledge.

A pie-in-the-sky idea

As sort of an ideal-world scenario, instead of routing all proposals through the most established and senior of scientists, I’d like to see a modest amount of future NIH funding be set aside and overseen by graduate students in seminars across the country. Essentially, students could sign up for a seminar where their coursework would be to analyze a set of grant applications pertaining to their field, learn about the science in each grant and about the grant system, and finally select the top 1-2 grants to be funded. The professor teaching the class would be in charge of the syllabus, but with the following three guidelines:

1. Attempt to choose the best grant proposals;
2. The students, not the professor, have the final say in which proposals get funded;
3. Use the class as a teaching tool for both the science involved in the grants, and the grant system itself.

The set of grant applications to evaluate could be drawn from the pool of applications the NIH has rejected, but still deems interesting and not based on bad science.

There would be a million details to fill in, but I guarantee this system would be consistently fresh and open to new ideas (I don’t know if anyone has noticed this, but grad students are really smart and creative!), yet would still be grounded in science and experience. It’d also be a fantastic teaching tool.

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