Kolata on Funding Research
“Grant money goes to projects unlikely to break much ground”-Kolata
Gina Kolata is a science writer for The New York Times. She is a wonderful journalist who understands science and how to make her stories come to life. I have had the honor of being the “subject” of several of her articles over the years and, while at Princeton, was one of her background sources for a few of her pieces. Gina coverage of the first DNA conference that Eric Baum and I organized years ago helped make it a success. Now that I am in Atlanta and she lives in Princeton and commutes to New York, I seem to have fallen off her rolodex. Oh well.
Today I want to point out a important article that just appeared today in the Sunday Times–above the fold. Gina’s article is entitled, Playing It Safe in Cancer Research. I strongly recommend that you read her article. The subtitle is a perfect summary of the article: “Grant Money Goes to Projects Unlikely To Break Much Ground.”
I believe that everything Gina says about funding for cancer research applies also to funding in the rest of science, and specifically in the theory of computing. The point of her article is that “wild” ideas that could change the landscape are usually not funded. As a result, some researchers do not even submit their potentially-breakthrough ideas to the funding system.
Eileen Jaffe is a senior scientist who was turned down–rejected out of hand–by NIH without even a panel review. Gina gives details on Jaffe’s idea, but to a layperson the idea sounds terrific. One of the reasons given for the rejection was that she had no preliminary results: Jaffe said:
“Of course I don’t. I need the grant money to get them.”
I want to be clear, cancer research is much more important than funding theory, perhaps more important than anything else. The point I am making is their funding system suffers from the “fear” of taking chances, and as a result ground-breaking research is held back. It’s all about fighting conventional wisdom. If everyone thinks it is obvious that factoring is hard, then who would get money to work factoring algorithms? If everyone thinks it is obvious that P is not equal to NP, then who would get funded to work on proving P=NP? And so on.
Our funding support–which for us means NSF–must be willing to take chances. NSF must be willing to fund high risk, high payoff research so our ground-breaking efforts are not held back. Our community must be willing to embrace those who have different views, and to support them with money and in other ways.
If we do not do this, I think the field of theory will not continue to flourish, and will not make the breakthroughs that it is capable of doing.
Please take a look at her great article. Also think of what we can do so that risky ideas can be tried out.