Tim Harford (author of The Undercover Economist and The Logic of Life has a new book coming out, called Adapt. It's about success and failure in various kinds of projects, and excerpts from it have been running over at Slate. The first installment was a look at the development (messy and by no means inevitable) of the Spitfire before World War II (I'd also add the de Havilland Mosquito as another example of a great plane developed through sheer individual persistence). And the second one is on biomedical research, which takes it right into the usual subject matter around here:
In 1980, Mario Capecchi applied for a grant from the U.S. National Institutes of Health. . .Capecchi described three separate projects. Two of them were solid stuff with a clear track record and a step-by-step account of the project deliverables. Success was almost assured.
The third project was wildly speculative. Capecchi was trying to show that it was possible to make a specific, targeted change to a gene in a mouse's DNA. It is hard to overstate how ambitious this was, especially back in 1980. . .The NIH decided that Capecchi's plans sounded like science fiction. They downgraded his application and strongly advised him to drop the speculative third project. However, they did agree to fund his application on the basis of the other two solid, results-oriented projects. . .
What did Capecchi do? He took the NIH's money, and, ignoring their admonitions, he poured almost all of it into his risky gene-targeting project. It was, he recalls, a big gamble. If he hadn't been able to show strong enough initial results in the three-to-five-year time scale demanded by the NIH, they would have cut off his funding. Without their seal of approval, he might have found it hard to get funding from elsewhere. His career would have been severely set back, his research assistants looking for other work. His laboratory might not have survived.
Well, it worked out. But it really did take a lot of nerve; Harford's right about that. He's not bashing the NIH, though - as he goes on to say, their granting system is pretty similar to what any reasonable gathering of responsible people would come up with. But:
The NIH's expert-led, results-based, rational evaluation of projects is a sensible way to produce a steady stream of high-quality, can't-go-wrong scientific research. But it is exactly the wrong way to fund lottery-ticket projects that offer a small probability of a revolutionary breakthrough. It is a funding system designed to avoid risks—one that puts more emphasis on forestalling failure than achieving success. Such an attitude to funding is understandable in any organization, especially one funded by taxpayers. But it takes too few risks. It isn't right to expect a Mario Capecchi to risk his career on a life-saving idea because the rest of us don't want to take a chance.
Harford goes on to praise the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's investigator program, which is more explicitly aimed at funding innovative people and letting them try things, rather than the "Tell us what you're going to discover" style of many other granting agencies. Funding research in this style has been advocated by many people over the years, including a number of scientific heroes of mine, and the Hughes approach seems to be catching on.
It isn't straightforward. You want to make sure that you're just not just adding to the Matthew Effect by picking a bunch of famous names and handing them the cash. (That's the debate in the UK after a recent proposal to emulate the HHMI model). No, you're better off finding people with good ideas and the nerve to pursue them, whether they've made a name for themselves yet or not, but that's not an easy task.
Still, I'm very happy that these changes in academic funding are in the air. I worry that our system is sclerotic and less able to produce innovations than it should be, and shaking it up a bit is just what's needed.