January 2010

More Bang for the Buck


Even as the president and Congress make overtures about the importance of greater investment in science, federal agencies are under increasing pressure to make the most efficient use of the funds they are given. Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of Science Magazine, and others say that traditional funding mechanisms have created a peer-review culture that funds conservative and incremental science (1). In response, federal agencies, nonprofits and private enterprises are developing new ways to fund creative, innovative and breakthrough-oriented science. But will they create more scientific “bang” for our buck?

Highlights from the Policy Blotter

•The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Policy Blotter blog posts regular news and commentary about current science policy issues. Below are some recent highlights. You can read them and other posts at http://asbmbpolicy.asbmb.org.
• A Lesson From Nobel Laureates:
Basic Science Requires Federal Dollars (
President Obama’s recent visit with the 11 American 2009 Nobel Prize laureates underscores the importance of federal funding for basic science.
• An Ongoing Conversation:
Women In Science
Several nonprofits, blogs and federal agencies recently have released publications about women in science, and some have surprising takes on the issue.
• NIH, Collins Announce
Approval of Stem-Cell Lines
The National Institutes of Health has approved the use of 13 lines of stem cells under a new policy that will expand dramatically the resources available for regenerative biomedical research.
• “Growing Pains” for Evolution (
Actor Kirk Cameron has teamed up with a creationist group to promote a version of Darwin’s “Origin of the Species” with a creationist introduction.

Identifying Innovative Projects

Traditional science funding is project oriented. Proposals historically have required detailed descriptions of specific methods and preliminary data. Peer-review panels traditionally have chosen proposals that may be the best science but are also most likely to succeed. Many policymakers and scientists say that approach has created a culture adverse to the risk-taking necessary for innovative research.

In response, federal agencies recently have re-evaluated their grant-review procedures to make the process more innovation-friendly. For example, the National Institutes of Health recently changed its grant application form, reducing its length and requiring less preliminary data and fewer specific research methods (2). Further, the National Science Foundation has adopted the language of innovation into every grant review it facilitates. Since 2008, the NSF has used a definition of so-called “transformative” research to instruct reviewers in identifying research on the scientific cutting edge (3).

But, the NIH and the NSF have gone even further and created project-based funding mechanisms that attempt to specifically fund innovative research. For example, the NIH’s Exceptional, Unconventional Research Enabling Knowledge Acceleration (EUREKA) Awards “target investigators who are testing novel, unconventional hypotheses or are pursuing major methodological and technical challenges” (4). Demonstrating that it, too, will fund yet-untested ideas, the NSF has created the Early-concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER) to support potentially transformative ideas or approaches in the absence of preliminary data (5).

Other agencies in the U.S. defense and energy departments are specifically tasked with funding innovative research projects. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is famous for supporting efforts that led to the development of the stealth fighter and the Internet (6). The Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, ARPA-E, is modeled after DARPA and aims to fund “nimble, creative inventive approaches to transform the global energy landscape” (7).

“People, Not Projects”

While federal agencies rely on project-based grants to fund the vast majority of research, some private foundations have developed different philosophies. By funding “people, not projects,” Howard Hughes Medical Institute believes that scientists will be able to “capitalize on a flash of insight that occurs at three in the morning,” Gerald M. Rubin, vice president of the institute, said in recent testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Science and Technology (8). The institute’s investigator program provides multiyear funding to individuals who will creatively push the boundaries of science, working at the frontiers of their chosen fields. With funding that is not tied to any specific project or proposal, the institute hopes to give investigators the “ability to move quickly to take advantage of unforeseen targets of opportunity,” Rubin said.

Following that model, the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences provides funding for early-stage investigators. Each year, between 15 and 20 early-career faculty members are chosen to receive the four-year awards. While freed from the constraints of presenting extensive amounts of preliminary data, investigators must demonstrate creative, innovative, risky approaches and ideas (9).

Even the NIH is experimenting with this approach. In 2010, it awarded seven Pioneer Awards to investigators who proposed pioneering and transformative approaches that could have an unusually high impact on a broad range of biomedicine (10). Additionally, the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award is tasked with “stimulating highly innovative research and supporting promising new investigators” by funding early-career faculty who may lack preliminary data (11).

Innovation Prizes

Popular in the private sector, innovation prizes soon may fund federal science research. These competitions award large cash prizes to teams that successfully complete predefined tasks. Previously, awards have inspired scientists and engineers to measure a ship’s latitude accurately, fly across the Atlantic Ocean and even develop better algorithms for predicting how much someone is going to enjoy a movie based on their Netflix movie preferences (12, 13). Now, the U.S. House of Representatives is encouraging the NSF to explore innovation prizes as a possible catalyst for scientific innovation (14).

Impact Uncertain

With so many new mechanisms for funding innovative research, it is difficult to determine which will prove the best. More time and more research will be needed to assess whether these novel mechanisms are fostering high rates of breakthrough science. But, by carefully comparing them and other programs, we should soon know the outcome of our nation’s innovation experiment.


1. Alberts, B. (2009) On Incentives for Innovation. Science, 326, 1163.
2. NIH Web site. Restructured Application Forms and Instructions for Application Due Dates on or after Jan. 25, 2010. http://bit.ly/6QAL8v.
3. Testimony of James P. Collins, assistant director, Directorate for Biological Sciences, National Science Foundation, before the U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Science and Technology, Subcommittee on Research and Science Education. Oct. 8, 2009. Investing in High Risk, High Reward Research. http://bit.ly/7kdy9v.
4. NIH Web site. Exceptional, Unconventional Research Enabling Knowledge Acceleration (EUREKA) (R01). http://bit.ly/6eULHx.
5. NSF Web site. Chapter II -- Proposal Preparation Instructions. Early-concept Grants for Exploratory Research Grant Proposal Guide. http://bit.ly/7T2r5g.
6. Defense Advanced Research Project Agency Web site. www.darpa.mil/history.html.
7. U.S. Department of Energy Web site. Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy. http://arpa-e.energy.gov.
8. Testimony of Gerald M. Rubin before the Subcommittee on Research and Science Education of the Committee on Science and Technology, United States House of Representatives. Oct. 8, 2009. http://bit.ly/5rsUJ6.
9. Pew Charitable Trusts Web site. Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences. http://bit.ly/54QhQd.
10. NIH Web site. Pioneer Award. http://nihroadmap.nih.gov/pioneer.
11. NIH Web site. NIH Director’s New Innovator Award. http://bit.ly/4XQBfd.
12. King, R. (2009) Innovation prizes through history. Business Week.
13. Netflix Web site. Netflix Prize. www.netflixprize.com.
14. House Report 111-149.Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill, 2010. http://bit.ly/6edHEc.

Kyle M. Brown (kmbrown@asbmb.org) is an ASBMB science policy fellow.

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