How Do We Redirect Scientific Investigation?

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Is it possible to direct scientific research? Scientists working in the private sector are directed by their corporate funders. For scientists in the public arena, academia or non-profits, their choice of research is less controlled; where their expert knowledge of the field is assumed to make them better able to choose appropriate research paths, but not what always appears to us as “socially optimal.” The government, through the National Institutes of Health (NIH), tries to nudge scientific research with the big carrot, money; using one-time competitive grants for specific diseases, populations or methodologies called requests for applications or RFAs.

The NIH provides grants for both investigator-initiated studies, where the choice of subject belongs to the investigator and increasingly to RFAs, those governmental nudges, representing about 70% of their annual $28 billion budget. RFA funding typically is four-year grants of $2-3 million. There is often less competition for these smaller grants, a 1 in 5 chance of funding and first-time applicants have a greater chance of success. So here is the dilemma, when your research interest and that of the RFA line up, it is an easy choice, you apply; but when your interests diverge, how willing are you to change directions to get the money. How big is the carrot?

The economic term for haggling over the size of the carrot is elasticity. Using NIH grant data from 2002 to 2009 and the similarity of applicants’ prior work to the objectives of each RFA grant a recent paper looks at the scientists’ bargain. The measure of similarity was based upon how much of scientists prior published abstracts used terminology found in the individual RFA application research objectives – the underlying assumption was the use of the same scientific language was a useful marker for the underlying science to be similar.

It is no surprise that scientists apply to highly “similar” projects, especially when they are more readily available, because of less competition, and come with good funding. So what tradeoffs do scientists make changing course and applying for less similar projects? 

  • The more aligned a scientist’s and RFA research interest, the less weight is put on the amount of the total award. But as the similarity becomes less, the amount of the grant rises. A "30% less" similar field would be where a researcher was studying a vaccine for a particular virus using a specific research animal and was asked instead to investigate a vaccine for a different virus but still using the same research animal and approach. By the author’s calculation scientists require an additional $1 million/annually to change course. 
  • Competition for grants is another consideration, and the author found that scientists traded an increased award size of about $80,000 for one more competitor for funding. 

Put into other words, scientists are willing to be redirected, but it comes at a cost, an award about 65% greater than what they might have gotten for staying the course. That premium helps cover the adjustments necessary for tangibles, like equipment and the intangible, research preferences.

  • RFA grants result in a 16 - 24% increase in publications. But that direction is short-lived with many researchers returning to their “primary interests” once the research award ends.
  • When looking at the output of both the winners and “losers” of the RFA awards, there seems to be no difference in quantity or quality, as measured by the publishing journal’s “impact.” In the words of the author, RFA’s “create more not better science.” 

What can we conclude? Not surprisingly, applicants choose the path they believe will be most likely to be funded. To get more externally directed research, to move science in the direction of “our choosing,” we must pay for a larger carrot and “…it is likely  that  much larger,  sustained  levels of investments  would  be necessary  to  generate meaningful  long-run  changes.” As with all things, when we look at the devil in the details, we find human behavior is often more than “if you build it, they will come.” 


[1] Similarity is expressed in standard deviations from how much of a researcher’s wording is found in RFA objectives. One standard deviation would suggest a 68% overlap of words. 


Source: The Elasticity of Science SSRN DOI: 10.2139/ssrn.3176991