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THE BLACK HOLE

On research priorities, don’t let the tail wag the dog

It hurts to see scientists cave to the pressure of a funding organization to alter their research to fit bureaucratic goals.

By DAVID KENT | FEB 24 2015

I’ve been spending quite a lot of time over the last few months writing grant proposals for my future research. As many scientists will know, this process is a great stimulator of ideas, especially when your back is up against the wall and funding rates are at all-time lows. With this comes a fair amount of stress and worry about one’s future, but it certainly does push your very best research ideas to the brink. They need to be defendable, bulletproof even – everything must be considered and a measured plan must be delivered (even if you don’t end up working on everything you suggest, you need to show that you can think through the process of experimental successes and failures).

This process has many ups and downs – my research proposals have gotten tighter (and can probably get much tighter still) and I’ve moved from “this is pretty darn good” to “I don’t have any novel ideas!” back to “actually, not bad … I’d probably fund this” – and the value at the end is much more rigorously designed research programs. Sadly, some of these get buried and never see the light of day, and even sadder still is many scientists in the early stages of their career will become disheartened and they themselves will not lead research groups despite reaching a pretty polished set of research ideas. However, the one thing that absolutely wrings my soul is when good scientists cave to the pressure of a funding organization to alter their research passions to fit bureaucratic research goals. A new idea can be a very lonely place.

Let’s take an example: a cancer charity obviously wishes to fund research that will be related to cancer. Over the years, cancer charities have funded some very basic research on the fairly robust principle that some basic research will inform future cancer therapies. However, research scientists find themselves in a predicament when research funding is scarce – how does one make your research relevant to those demanding “translational research”? I was recently asked a question along these lines in an interview and the overwhelming temptation was to say “I will work on human samples or (at the very least) leukemia-related genes in model organisms” – but, the reality is that my research questions can only be performed in model organisms because the tools and techniques are not available in humans. I could promise to ask less rigorous questions in the human system and I could even carry out such experiments and come back for more funding, but I would be letting myself down because the questions I set out to ask are not answerable in humans yet. A friend once said to me: “Better to do their research than no research” and I still weep at the despair in that sentiment.

The reality is that just because it’s research on patient samples, it doesn’t mean that the research is going to lead to therapies any more quickly than research in model organisms. In fact, the systems are in constant interplay – our recent NEJM paper (all in patient samples) was directly inspired by the assays and approaches learned in model organisms. We need robust support of both sides of the coin. However, funding agencies (thankfully not all of them!) seem to increasingly push for more research that involves designing and testing therapies, working on patient samples, or improving standard of care – now. But some of these questions are not ready to be answered; the tools and processes do not exist and the first steps are to figure out how something works. One of the worst fall-outs from this is that basic scientists often struggle to get access to clinical samples, making the natural funding path lead to either basic scientists who do have access or to clinical scientists who acquire the samples themselves. We lose an enormous amount of human capital in this way (and their ideas) and I fear that it may be deterring future young scientists from even considering a run with the torch.

At the end of the day, research funding needs to go to those that are using the right system for the right question – and we need funding agencies and their peer reviewers to ask these hard questions, we need university hiring committees to identify those that can stimulate the next generation of ideas and trainees, and we need people to work together instead of putting up walls to protect their empires. The first stop for early career researchers? Ask yourself the hard questions and don’t be afraid to stick to your guns. You won’t survive in research if you can’t follow your best ideas.

ABOUT DAVID KENT
David Kent
David Kent is a group leader at the University of Cambridge in the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute. His laboratory's research focuses on fate choice in single blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David is currently the Stem Cell Institute’s Public Engagement Champion and has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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