Rethinking the Science System

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Science  11 Nov 2011:
Vol. 334, Issue 6057, pp. 738
DOI: 10.1126/science.1215299

As the U.S. budget environment for science and technology (S&T) threatens to get worse, it is essential for the scientific community to go beyond just advocating for special consideration. There is a strong case for maintaining investments in S&T as a foundation for long-term economic growth and social well-being. But when resources are constrained, it is essential that they be used effectively and efficiently to avoid losing scientific momentum and to ensure that society will benefit maximally from S&T's potential. The scientific community cannot afford to simply adapt passively to reduced budgets. The impact of impending cuts can be at least partially mitigated by some fundamental rethinking of the ways in which S&T are both funded and conducted. Although the United States is used as the example here, the same issues will apply in many other parts of the world.

Some relatively inexpensive process and policy changes could make a big difference. For example, the Federal Demonstration Partnership has reported that 42% of an American scientist's research time is spent on administrative tasks. Much of that burden comes from redundant reporting and assurance requirements that vary across granting agencies and universities. The National Science and Technology Council, which represents all of the U.S. research funding agencies, should intensify its efforts to harmonize funding and reporting policies across granting agencies to reduce wasted effort. As another example, in the face of potentially lower success rates that could end up generating even more proposals to review, new forms of shorter grant proposals or the use of preliminary proposals might help greatly in reducing the burden on funding agency program officers, on already overworked peer reviewers, and on project investigators. New models of streamlined or batch-processed peer review might also substantially improve efficiencies.


Another long-discussed issue that should be addressed at this time concerns funding grants based on detailed project descriptions versus grants based primarily on the accomplishments of the investigator. In a time of very constrained funding, it is not the best use of an established investigator's time to require yet another detailed project description when a simpler approach might suffice for renewed funding decisions. The National Science Foundation's Accomplishment-Based Renewal is one such example, where the decision on whether to renew a grant is based on recent success, rather than on projects yet to come. In considering this kind of approach, it would be important to include mechanisms that avoid skewing review decisions so heavily in the direction of established investigators that young investigators see little opportunity in the system for them. In that context, another approach that should be considered involves putting limits on the number of grants and/or the amount of funding awarded to any single investigator. This would make more funds available for young investigators or those new to the field.

The time is right for a fundamental re-envisioning of the system. Crisis can breed opportunity as well as hardship. Some in-depth analyses of the U.S. S&T enterprise are already under way and can provide excellent starting points for continued discussion. For example, the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology is currently studying the U.S. S&T enterprise and writing a report. The National Research Council is nearing completion of a study on the future of research universities. The difficult decisions will, of course, ultimately be made by policy-makers, but these decisions must be informed by a broadly inclusive conversation among all the stakeholders—government agencies and other policy-makers, industry, academia, patient groups, and researchers. The National Institutes of Health has recently sought broad input on its efforts to manage in fiscally challenged times (http://nexus.od.nih.gov/all/rock-talk/), and the S&T community should respond. Although consensus on the specifics may not be possible, the participants in the S&T system must all be willing to entertain truly bold and innovative ideas for moving forward in the new budget climate.

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