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Cover Story

April 3, 2006
Volume 84, Number 14
p. 60

From Pittcon

Building Bridges

Coalition advocates for nontraditional grant review mechanism to foster deep innovation

Celia Arnaud

A coalition of physical scientists seeks to ensure that funding for physical science research that benefits the life sciences will not suffer because of the long period between the research and its application.

Research in the physical sciences often benefits the life sciences through new physical methods or theoretical modeling, for example. Biology has enjoyed a number of "windfalls" from the physical sciences, said Ken A. Dill, a biophysicist at the University of California, San Francisco, last month during a symposium at Pittcon in Orlando, Fla. "Physical science has often provided huge payoffs for biology," Dill said, but the time lag between the physical discovery and the payoff can sometimes be decades, as it was with one of the windfalls, X-ray crystallography. And because their biological relevance is often unforeseeable, such technologies could be orphaned by the funding gap between the life and physical sciences.

Photo By Susan Morrissey Photo By Celia Arnaud

Ellis

Dill

Concern about this funding gap prompted Dill and other scientists in the Biophysical Society to start the Coalition for Bridging the Sciences, which now includes 16 professional societies including the American Chemical Society and the two societies that sponsor Pittcon: the Spectroscopy Society of Pittsburgh and the Society for Analytical Chemists of Pittsburgh. The goals of the coalition are to generate new support for research at the interface of the physical and life sciences and to encourage "deep innovation," Dill said. The coalition organized the symposium at Pittcon.

"The issue is risk," Dill said, and whether the research that is funded is low risk and incremental or high risk with potentially big payoffs. Is the government funding the "next little thing" or the "next big thing"?

The scientific community as a whole must address its risk aversion, said Michael S. Lubell, a physics professor at the City College of New York and director of public affairs at the American Physical Society. "Universities are some of the worst culprits. There is little incentive for young people to take risks," he said. "The reward structure encourages incremental advances."

Yet Belinda Seto, the deputy director of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging & Bioengineering (NIBIB) at the National Institutes of Health, and Arthur B. Ellis, director of the Chemistry Division at the National Science Foundation, both said program officers in their agencies are always looking for opportunities to fund high-risk proposals.

At NSF, the Small Grants for Exploratory Research program, or SGER (pronounced "sugar"), is underutilized, Ellis said. Reflecting their high-risk nature and time sensitivity, SGER proposals are reviewed internally and must first be discussed with program officers before submission, Ellis explained. Such tools allow program officers to be entrepreneurial in their approach to funding.

At NIBIB, meanwhile, special consideration is given "to projects that bridge and integrate the life and physical sciences," Seto said. The institute supports approximately 4,200 researchers with about $250 million in grants for bioengineering, she said.

NIBIB is particularly interested in "translation science" that brings technology into medicine, Seto said. NIBIB wants to fund "quantum projects" that are "at the cusp of being applied to medicine," she said, adding that NIBIB Director Roderic I. Pettigrew called these projects a "moon shot for technology and medicine."

The coalition believes that a new mechanism for grants is needed, Dill said. "We've been trying to help members of the agencies develop a grant-proposal system that will support deeper innovation than the current system supports," he told C&EN. The coalition suggests moving to short proposals that focus on vision rather than predictability.

"For deep innovation, the problem is that it's very difficult to see where something is going to lead. It's often easy to squash ideas at an early stage," Dill said. "You need independent reviewers in parallel looking for the insight of where it could lead, rather than a panel of reviewers seeking flaws in the technical details."

A key aspect of the coalition's proposal is "advocacy based" reviewing. Dill explained the idea by comparing what can happen during the review process with a string of lights connected in series. When one bulb burns out, the entire string goes out. "In NIH study sections, you can get an influential comment from a reviewer that's like the light bulb in series. It can blackball a proposal," Dill said. "For deep innovation grants, we'd like a review mechanism that is less conservative, more advocacy-based, less focused on details and preliminary results, and has more emphasis on independent reviewers." This advocacy-based system would behave more like light bulbs connected in parallel; one negative comment is less likely to derail the entire process.

A big question is how to pick winners since deep innovation requires making guesses. One answer came from Ellis, who described NSF's efforts to fund "cyber enabled" research that takes advantage of the Internet and other computer resources (C&EN, Oct. 17, 2005, page 28). An application of such research is so-called scientometrics, which involves the use of information from databases, advanced algorithms, and visualization methods to provide measures of scientific investment and output that can inform science policy. Such information includes maps of the scientific landscape and connections between topics, researchers, and federal agencies.

"Science maps provide us with a kind of bird's-eye view of how scientific fields are evolving and enable us to characterize our portfolio of awards and their impact. We can spot emerging areas and, by comparing our investments to those of other agencies and other countries, also identify potential opportunities for collaboration," Ellis said. "Scientometrics will be extremely helpful to researchers and educators, as they will be able to see how their work fits into a broader scientific context."

Even with the benefit of scientometrics, however, deep innovation will always require risky speculation. "Our agencies," Dill said, "need the flexibility and funding to take more risks."

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