Let's start today with this proposition: The United States is underfunding basic scientific research. This situation predates the current administration, even though President Trump and his appointees have been notable for their indifference (if not outright hostility) toward science.
So in a situation where it's harder and harder to find money for research, it particularly matters how funding agencies make their decisions about how to award increasingly scarce dollars. That's why a new study from an Oregon State University postdoctorate scholar, Sarah Gravem, caught my eye this past week.
Gravem, who studies integrative biology at OSU, was the lead author for a paper recently published in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution. The paper takes aim at government funding procedures that require scientists to state at the proposal stage how their projects will be "transformative," that is to say, how the projects will shift or break existing paradigms. The National Science Foundation, for example, which funds about a quarter of the federally supported research at U.S. universities, requires such a statement with each proposal.
The problem, as Gravem as just about any other scientist will tell you, is that science doesn't really work that way. And, in fact, as Gravem and her colleagues interviewed and surveyed 78 ecologists for the paper, the grimy workaday truth about science came into focus: Even these highly cited scientists said that, by and large, they started their projects seeking incremental insights — the building blocks of science — and only later realized the transformative potential of their work.
As you might imagine, the idea for the study was hatched because of researchers' frustration with this transformative requirement. Gravem said she was seeking funding for an experiment she was designing and told Bruce Menge, an integrative biology professor at OSU, that "we need this to be transformative."
"He looked at me," Gravem recalled, "and said, 'I hate that word. Do you think scientists go into studies thinking that each study is going to be transformative?'"
Gravem and Menge, of course, knew that they do not — and the dozens of interviews and surveys that followed served to confirm the point.
Part of the issue here is that Americans, by and large, don't have a clear understanding of how science works. It is not a daily parade of huge breakthroughs in laboratories across the country. It is, rather, a series of much smaller advances that sometimes lead to huge, world-shaking insights. And, in fact, many of those big breakthroughs come from experiments in which the researchers were looking for something different entirely. In other cases, it takes years for big breakthroughs to truly come into focus.
So insisting that each scientific experiment be "transformative" runs the risk of ignoring the basic building blocks that help create those breakthroughs. It's like trying to build a skyscraper without worrying about the foundation.
Gravem understands that funding agencies like the National Science Foundation need ways to weed out proposals. And she also understands that funders need to be able to justify where they spend their money to politicians, government officials and taxpayers: "They're trying to legitimatize their spending to people who don't understand how science works," she said.
But in this case, the "transformative" hurdle can be used as an easy excuse to jettison basic research proposals: "The definition of transformative is really far-reaching," she said. "It's a pie-in-the-sky kind of definition."
There's a better way to approach this funding, and it's one that was suggested more than a decade ago by the board that oversees the National Science Foundation: Create a separate fund to solicit and support these "transformational" proposals. Back then, the board was worried that the United States was lagging behind other countries in scientific advances (a worry that has accelerated today, by the way) and so thought that creating a separate fund to pay for risky research with a potential huge payoff would be wise. Instead, the foundation went the other way, requiring that every research proposal be transformative.
Some of this problem would go away, of course, if we decided to adequately fund scientific research. "If we had more money," Gravem said, "then we wouldn't have to be setting these high hoops for scientists to jump through."
In the meantime, Gravem and other young scientists with eyes set on long careers in science do their best to push ahead with their work, despite the unsettled situation. 'I'm hoping the environment gets better," Gravem said. "I love science. It's the best way we have to solve real-world problems."