Practice of Science Friday: The Turn Toward Investigator-Initiated Research in the US, is it Too Late to Turn Back?

Years ago, I worked on the Research Committee of the 7th American Forest Congress.  There was a “communities” member on the committee (I believe it was Carolyn Daly) who said from the perspective of forest communities “Why are scientists always telling us what we can’t do? Why don’t they help us figure out what we can do?”

For many of us, our scientist heroes were folks like George Washington Carver, who used science to help make people’s lives better.  Today there are many scientists who carry on that tradition just fine in all disciplines. However, it has happened that even within my lifetime, the reins of the science budget have drifted farther away from people who want problems solved.  You’d think that Congress could fix that, and they have tried, but the inertia of investigator-initiated research and science community control is very strong.

Here’s a study by Kyle Myers of the Harvard Business School who studied how much money it costs to get a scientist to change their topic.

But, how should we decide what types of research to fund? What diseases, what populations, what methodologies should we focus on? We could leave this up to the scientists themselves. And in the United States, this has become a popular choice. The “investigator-initiated” grant, where scientists propose their own ideas to be evaluated by their peers, is commonplace. This is especially true at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the single largest funder of biomedical research in the world.

This investigator-initiated approach makes sense. Scientists are, after all, the people who should know the most about what ideas are the most promising. But the incentive structure of science, with its emphasis on priority and prestige, may not lead scientists to prefer the same things as society would like. And, like the rest of us, scientists may be influenced by certain preferences, biases, or other constraints that could prove misaligned with social goals. It is not surprising then that many countries, and notably the EU’s Horizon Europe research framework, rely on more “top-down” or “mission-oriented” styles where policymakers directly allocate funds to specific topics.

The NIH balances this tradeoff by using a combination of both investigator-initiated grants, as well as a number of “targeted” grant mechanisms that solicit proposals for particular types of research. These targeted mechanisms request ideas that focus on a particular disease, methodology, or population, and have become increasingly popular (see fig.1). But the NIH, and most other scientific funding agencies, have long assumed that scientists will be willing to adjust their research trajectories in response to these sorts of targeted grants or mission-oriented policies. However, whether these adjustments actually occur in practice – do scientists do what policymakers ask them to? — and just how costly they are to induce, has been unclear.

It’s interesting that the EU is apparently more open to these “mission” ideas. An op-ed here from Marianna Mazzucato of University College, London.

The good news is that we don’t have to look very far for tangible lessons. Most of the smart products we have in our bags and pockets came from investments that were more far reaching than a simple “science-push” explanation provides. They came from the ability to connect science to solving concrete problems  –  that is, through “missions”….

Today we have the opportunity to direct innovation in similar mission-led ways, which will be as bold as the moonshot programme was, but will instead be aimed at the multiple social and technological challenges we have. These will be inspired not by Cold War challenges, but by what one could call the war on poverty, the war on climate change and the urgent need to create societies that are more just and sustainable.

Today’s political leaders are not short of societal challenges that they can turn into concrete missions: climate change, ageing populations and rising inequality. I have been advocating a mission-led approach in the European Union and setting out potential missions for a plastic-free ocean, carbon-neutral cities and decreasing the burden of dementia. These are all significant challenges of our time that need bold and inspirational leadership.

Missions are set at the top without being prescriptive on what the innovation required to solve the problem must be. They then facilitate bottom-up innovation to achieve the goal. We need to use the full power of government instruments – from prize schemes to procurement – to crowd in multiple bottom-up solutions. The moonshot, for example, required innovations across different sectors to be successful, including nutrition, computing and clothing as well as spaceflight.
It will also be important not to ignore the humanities and social sciences in missions.

I’d only argue that the social sciences are more than “not to be ignored.” Many new technologies have foundered on the shoals of cost or public acceptance. Maybe Mazzucato, as an economist was unwilling to toot her own discipline’s horn.

9 thoughts on “Practice of Science Friday: The Turn Toward Investigator-Initiated Research in the US, is it Too Late to Turn Back?”

  1. “…forest communities…(?) “Why are scientists always telling us what we can’t do? Why don’t they help us figure out what we can do?”…….. “people who want problems solved.”

    It’s not entirely clear here what you mean by “forest communities” — especially coming from the world view of the American Forest Congress, which conflates tree plantations with what were formerly intact, diverse, resilient old growth forest communities. We have hundreds of imperiled species facing extinction precisely because they’ve been displaced from their formerly intact, diverse, resilient old growth forest communities which have been reduced to market commodities servicing a demonstrably unsustainable culture based upon unlimited growth with demands for unlimited consumption.

    What is clear to me however, based upon your prior assertions that there’s no such thing as old growth “forest communities” that haven’t been irrevocably altered by Anthropogenic forces ( so therefore, requires Forest Congress “management”) is a matter of perspective.

    Such a biased assertion, at least in the context of physical disturbance regimes, I know to be utterly untrue for the coastal temperate old growth rainforests of Southeast Alaska and elsewhere on the planet; and especially the vast expanses of the boreal ecosystems of the Northern hemisphere. Regrettably however, atmospheric transport of Anthropogenic pollution and climatic disruption knows no boundaries– we must now live with the (formerly) unintended consequences of “management” and its perennial promises of “fixing” the very crises it has spawned in the name of the (forest’s) “service” to unsustainable consumerism.

    So I do not (and no doubt many others do not) subscribe to the technological fundamentalism at the center of your thesis. I’m reminded of a scientist giving a public presentation wearing a tee-shirt with the quote, (to paraphrase) “we wouldn’t call it ‘research’ if we knew what we were doing.”

    That same humility is now urgently required of those who actually subscribe to such fundamentalist worldviews.

    The mindset imbedded in this discourse, as I perceive it, is the same technological fundamentalism which has delivered us to the Sixth Mass Extinction Event — (Homo sapiens is included here– but the name itself is supposed to mean “wise man”.)

    As a truly wise man (Einstein) once noted, the same mindset (of technological fundamentalism) which has delivered us to this existential precipice, is highly unlikely to be capable of solving the convergences of disasters it has unleashed. There was a time when the naive claim to “unintended consequences” might’ve been legitimate.

    That was then… now we must rationalize the irrational and face the ethical consequences.

    • I may be missing your point, David, but the 7th American Forest Congress was hosted by a variety of organizations, most notably one of my own alma maters, Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Apparently NRDC was one of the sponsors, according to this article in Bioscience

      Dave Iverson’s Ecowatch blog which was Jim Saveland’s input to the Congress. This is from 1996:

      “Future search conferences, such at this 7th American Forest Congress, are important first steps to building community. Developing a desired future condition in the forest planning process can be an exercise in discovering common ground. (M.R. Weisbord, Discovering Common Ground, Berrett-Koehler; M.R. Weisbord & S. Janoff,Future Search, Berrett-Koehler)

      The compliment of future search, an accurate picture of how things are today, will help build communities. Information systems that widely communicate an honest assessment of the current condition of our forests can be developed.

      Conversation and stories are at the heart of building communities. The Dialogue Project at MIT’s Center for Organizational Learning offers a theory and practice for improving conversations [W. Isaacs, “Taking flight: Dialogue, collective thinking and organizational learning,” Organizational Dynamics 22(2):24-39]. Similar projects could be developed around forest issues.

      The language of systems can foster community building. Learning Laboratory Projects at MIT’s Center for Organizational Learning offer a theory and practice for developing systems thinking. [J.D. Sterman, “Teaching takes off – flight simulators for management education,” OR/MS Today 19(5):40-44]. Similar projects could be developed for the forestry community.”

      In light of today’s discussions 23 years later, have discussing DC’s or systems thinking brought people together, or rather are they discussing the same old stuff (cuttin’ trees if or where) with different and more abstract terminology?

      • You are correct Sharon.
        You missed my point —again.

        My point can be boiled down to the same reason why (over the last 23 years you mention) all the greenwashed industry, agency, conservation collaboration and scientists have spent hundreds of millions of dollars, yet have not meaningfully changed anything while our national, hemispheric and planetary ecosystems and climate disruption continue towards collapse unabated. James Hansen’s predicted warnings of, “irreversible, catastrophic” feedbacks are now occurring.

        That myself and hundreds of millions of others on the planet find this alarming and you don’t seem particularly concerned might have something to do with you missing the point.

        I believe it was also Einstein who noted that repeating the same failed actions to solve an enduring problem while each time, expecting different results is the definition of insanity. (I would add Nihilism. )

        This gets back to your thesis of who, how, where, why and what the money for scientific research gets spent on.

        All of that scientific haggling and handwringing and conservation collaboration has clearly not made a whit of a difference in the last 23 year time frame you mention.

        Which is to say, all the earnest attempts by industry and agency, elected representatives and planners’ exercises in public relations are for naught. Their mollifications of public concerns aren’t solving the problem because they’re addressing EFFECTS rather than addressing Causation and that’s Precisely the Problem.

        Root cause analysis is not a new thing in science Sharon. Nor is investigative journalists’ axiom, “follow the money,” nor the law enforcement axiom, “follow the evidence wherever it may lead.”

        Nothing happens towards solving existential problems if all we do is spend precious time and energy addressing the effects of unsustainable, unlimited, utterly destructive practices which condemn present and future generations to a holy Hell of our own making.

        Meanwhile the acceleration in our trajectory over the existential cliff we face, proceeds apace.

  2. Did Rachel Carson “help us figure out what we can do?”

    Did Rachel Carson “tell us what we can’t do?”

    Did Rachel Carson do both?

    • Some scientists identify problems. Some scientists work on how to fix them, and often work hand in hand with those working on the ground to provide products and services that people use and dare I say need. We need to have both kinds of scientists working. Say with climate change, sometimes it seems the funding is imbalanced between identification and fixing. Of course, if people could simply give up their needs for food, water, shelter, energy, etc. we wouldn’t need the “fixers.” That seems unlikely to me.

      • “Of course, if people could simply give up their needs for food, water, shelter, energy, etc. we wouldn’t need the “fixers.” That seems unlikely to me.“

        I thought we were discussing publicly owned national forest lands management. Our NFS provides about 6% or less of our national “needs”for timber. Those “needs” service a throwaway culture of consumerism known to be unsustainable. I would posit the highest and best purposes of our NFS are served by allowing forests to do what they’ve always done.

        I cant think of a higher “need” than for allowing our NFS to provide for the purposes of sequestering our profligate GHG emissions.

        Allowing all the other ecosystem services they provide without being commodified or financialized would be a reasonable alternative to the status quo. We certainly cant expect this to occur on the private tree plantations servicing the other 95% of our timber consumption.

  3. I’m out of my element here. But this innovative and thoughtful discourse is the root of why I am now following the Smokey Wire.

  4. Same. But just for fun I googled “Trump research priorities,” and here’s what they are.
    How do they relate to the question of “targeted” vs. “transformational?” (Does anyone have a sense of the proportion of research dollars subject to government prioritization as opposed to corporate or NGO?)

    It’s easy to skim the 9 pages. Of course nothing on public lands or forestry, though there’s a section on “American Energy and Environmental Leadership,” and an interesting paragraph on “earth system predicability,” which could be talking about climate change. And of course, does anyone pay attention to the President’s budget?

    My general reaction to Mazzucato was that the moonshot and cold war are not good analogs fort “the war on poverty, the war on climate change and the urgent need to create societies that are more just and sustainable” because we are not united behind those goals (or a least that it’s worth the cost to pursue them), and there are counter forces working against progress.

    • I’m not sure everyone was behind the moonshot ($ could have been better used to reduce poverty), and certainly not everyone was behind the Cold War. In spite of disagreements, though, in the US, folks found a path forward.
      I’d agree that poverty, justice and sustainability are abstractions with a strong social definition/component. Removing CO2 or reducing it, though, are technical problems more like a moonshot.


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