Thursday, June 23, 2011

Brother, Can You Spare Me a Dime?

By Keith McDowell

The bane of all individual independent researchers is the moment when one must put pen to paper to frame the next grant proposal from an ill-formed idea. Independent of the quality of idea – whether innovative, transformational, or really dumb, the first step for the researcher is always the same: send money! We’re all familiar with this terse communication from our children away at college. Nobel Laureate Richard Smalley, one of our nation’s leading experts in nanotechnology before his untimely death, was also fond of pitching this message at the end of his energy talks. He, of course, provided his lab address as the location to “send money.”

But why is the message “send money” the next step when a new idea emerges? No one doubts the aphorism that innovation through research and development requires funding. And no one doubts that grantsmanship by faculty members is the key determinant for tenure and promotion, often independent of the quality of the research or its relevance for the American innovation ecosystem. But why is “new” money needed to pursue a “new” idea. Why not use “old” money already in the system? The answer is surprisingly simple. The American system for funding R&D in our universities has become so accountability laden and so driven by a defined format that innovation through transformational and frontier research has been choked almost out of existence. You can’t use “old” money on a “new” idea.

While an excellent case can be made that the present system of funding R&D served America well in the Twentieth Century, there are a growing list of problems equally as important as “old versus new money.” The time to re-examine that system has arrived, especially with regard to STEM university researchers. The argument that it is the best because it’s the best and we shouldn’t change it is a tautology and isn’t sufficient for the Twenty-First Century. But what form should a new system of funding take? Who should be funded and by what process? Should it be use-directed research founded on societal challenges or sandbox science?

Taking pen to paper, I have a proposal to offer to those unafraid of change. The core principle is that individual university researchers must be enabled through base-level, but minimal funding to explore essentially random or self-determined pathways or research directions – whether basic research, applied research, or development – in an independent manner without pre-approval. Such activity is at the heart of transformational research and disruptive innovations. In some small measure we currently satisfy this principle by providing new faculty hires with startup funding. But that funding rapidly gets spent and is not replaced by additional sandbox funding. I would greatly expand upon this beginning with a total revamping of individual investigator funding in the United States and base the structure on people, not specific research ideas.

To accomplish that end, my system would function in the following manner – beginning with a newly minted doctoral graduate. A university announces an opening for a tenure-track position at the rank of assistant professor and the hiring process follows the normal course of business including a description of the intended research focus. The hiring process serves not only to vet candidates for the faculty position, but to vet the candidates for funding. The new hire receives research funding from a startup package as well as a federal individual investigator grant or IIG. In other words, if they made it to the point of being hired, you fund them!

The IIG would likely be funded by a block grant to the university obtained by a competitive process or some other process that achieved an appropriate distribution of IIG funds across all universities. Geographic distribution is both politically wise and essential for the growth of regional innovation ecosystems. The new hire would be guaranteed IIG funding for a specified period – likely five to seven years – with an annual rate of say, $150,000, including summer salary support. The funds could be restricted from hiring graduate students who would be funded by a separate federal or local fellowship program – an additional mechanism to spur independent thought and the training of independent investigators. Graduate students would also be funded by larger-scale grants such as center grants or lablet projects.

At the conclusion of the specified time period, the faculty member would undergo evaluation for tenure and/or promotion using the normal process with the added feature that renewal of the IIG award for another specified period of time would also be considered. Thus, at both the initiation of the IIG and its renewal, a peer review process is used. For the renewal of the IIG award, it would be a peer post-review of the accomplishments from the first award. It is a performance-based system.

The IIG funding with an appropriate cycle time and peer post-review process would continue throughout the career of the faculty member. Change of university, retirement, and other such issues are easily worked out. It would also make sense for superstars to get additional IIG funding, but only as part of the peer post-review process. Keep in mind that IIG functions as part of a larger funding system including center grants.

So, what are the benefits of my IIG funding system? Here is an unranked list.

·      The game of “science by proxy” is significantly reduced. Faculty return to performing research instead of being consumed by grant writing.
·      Independent investigator driven research is supported that permits immediate funding of new pathways.
·      Both young and old investigators with a new idea receive base-level funding without an approval process. The Establishment and “me too” thinking doesn’t rule the day.
·      Performance as a researcher instead of the ability to write successful proposals would drive base-level research funding.
·      Potentially innovative and disruptive research receives funding.
·      Peer review is appropriately maintained, but as a post-review, performance-based exercise. You are rewarded for what you do instead of what you say you are going to do. Performance-based peer review is much more of a merit-based system than one based on the merit of proposed research ideas – especially ideas chosen to satisfy the Establishment!
·      The massive and exponentially growing process of individual investigator (or small team) proposal review is replaced by a process that merges base-level grantsmanship with the tenure and promotion process. It would require some modification of the tenure and promotion process to factor in the cycle time of the IIG. Changing to this system of reviewing people instead of proposals would significantly increase the time spent in the laboratory instead of time spent on peer review and the funding bureaucracy.
·      Peer review would be placed where it belongs – principally in the hands of fellow faculty members and with input from external reviewers. Fidelity of the process could be assured through federal audit of the records since federal funding is involved.
·      The combined peer post-review process would increase the likelihood that fellow faculty members would become more familiar with their local peers. This would also be abetted by my open publication system.
·      The base-level funding would cover basic, applied, and developmental research – especially if faculty members are rewarded for commercialization of their research in the tenure and promotion process. This goal would be enhanced by the structure of the other parts of the overall grants system.
·      The financial burden on universities for startup grants would likely be reduced, although universities could still use startup grants for competitive advantage in hiring as an add-on to the IIG.
·      The development of regional innovation ecosystems could be enhanced depending on the distribution algorithm for IIG awards to universities.

How radical is my performance-based IIG? It’s not a jobs program – as some have described the present grants system – but a performance-based program to spur innovations with a sustainable, predictable funding model that puts researchers back to work doing independent, exploratory research – not bureaucracy. If you truly want to see a radical program, consider the proposal by Robert J. Birgeneau and Frank D. Yeary from The Washington Post of 27 September 2009 entitled A New Model to Help Finance Higher Education Birgeneau and Yeary, chancellor and vice chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, propose that “great public research and teaching universities receive basic operating support from the federal government and their respective state governments.” Their scheme would be “a 21st-century version of the Morrill Act.” They further state “As with any daring scheme, the devil is in the details. … Yet such problems are solvable, if there is a will. … Simply put, no matter what the form, we must take some radical steps if we are to preserve the public character of America’s great public universities.”

The IIG system is potentially a simple version or small piece of the Birgeneau-Yeary model, but with real and positive consequences for the innovation enterprise. University researchers and innovators with a new idea should not be reduced to depression-era beggars chanting “brother, can you spare me a dime?”

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