Future of Research — General Support

Participants and organizers in conversation at a Future of Research workshop (photo by lipofsky.com, courtesy of Future of Research)
Organization Name 
Award Date 
4/2016
Grant Amount 
$300,000
Purpose 
For general support
Topic (focus area) 

Published: April 2016

Future of Research staff reviewed this page prior to publication.

The Open Philanthropy Project is currently in the early stages of exploring science philanthropy. Improving science policy and infrastructure seems to us to be one potentially promising area for investigation and grantmaking.

Future of Research (FoR) is a new non-profit with a stated mission “to improve the scientific research enterprise.”1 We see a grant to Future of Research as a potentially promising opportunity within science policy and infrastructure, which is a space where we have found few active organizations, particularly organizations planning to do full-time work on the issues most compelling to us.

FoR is a new organization. We have little to go on regarding past accomplishments, and there are no particular future activities we’re confident in. Given that we will be able to review FoR’s performance over the next 2 years, we feel that this risk is worth taking.

Based on these considerations, the Open Philanthropy Project made a $300,000 grant over two years to Future of Research.

Background

The cause

We are currently still in the relatively early stages of thinking about science philanthropy, and we have not yet set focus areas within this category (see our September 2015 update for more detail about our plans going forward). This grant falls within the area of science policy and infrastructure reform, which we are particularly interested in. We think is likely enough to become a focus area that we are happy to invest time in relevant opportunities.

The organization

Future of Research (FoR) was founded as a volunteer association of early-career life science researchers in October 2014. FoR is currently run on a volunteer basis by a group of Boston-area postdocs led by Gary McDowell. Their stated mission is “to improve the scientific research enterprise.”2

Its activities to date have consisted mainly of organizing conferences in Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, and New York. We attended one of their workshops in San Francisco on the recommendation of one of our scientific advisors. It was well-attended and covered a number of issues that we feel are important (such as some of the issues discussed under “proposed activities”).

FoR has also published a paper in F1000Research describing the results of its first conference in Boston.3 We feel the paper discusses important issues (again, such as some of the issues discussed under “proposed activities”).

Case for the grant

We feel that FoR’s performance so far has been strong for a volunteer-led organization. So far, this judgment is based primarily on the workshops and paper discussed above, as well as positive comments about their work that we have heard from senior scientists.

We think it is possible that FoR could play an important role among groups working on scientific policy, and we consider a grant that provides FoR with an opportunity to demonstrate the potential value of its work in this area to be a worthwhile bet. We view this grant as an opportunity to enable a group to work full-time on issues which currently receive almost no full-time attention outside of people working in government.

Proposed activities

FoR has identified several issues in current scientific practice that seem like potentially important problems to us, including:

  • Use of graduate students and postdocs as cheap labor: Junior scientists are primarily treated as cheap labor rather than as participants in a well-rounded training program that prepares participants for a range of clearly identified career options.”4
  • Funding and evaluation metrics: Current metrics of evaluation, which are based on the number and impact factor of publications, have resulted in a culture of hyper-competitiveness which discourages creativity, co-operation, risk-taking and original thinking.”5
  • Grant evaluation processes disadvantage young researchers: Institutional leanings in funding agencies were perceived as resulting in funds that are highly centralized; with large grants being awarded to large, well-established labs.”6

To address these issues, FoR has proposed some policy changes that seem plausibly beneficial to us, including:

  • Permanent staff scientists: “Permanent staff scientist positions should be created with funding structures that remove the competition between the staff scientist and cheaper postdocs or graduate students.”7 This aligns with one of the major suggestions of the paper we highlighted in our post on science policy and infrastructure. We see increasing the use of staff scientists as being potentially beneficial via:
    • Decreasing the amount of time that promising early-career scientists put in doing lower-level lab work, giving scientists the possibility to do more valuable work earlier in their careers.
    • Making the life sciences a more attractive field to talented scientists, through the mechanism laid out in the previous point.
  • Minimum salary and benefits: “All postdocs should receive at least the NIH [National Institutes of Health] minimum salary, with a geographical cost-of-living adjustment… and certain basic benefits.”8 We believe this proposal might help address the issue of hyper-competitiveness (which Dr. Bruce Alberts and colleagues, whom we have also funded, have suggested is a primary cause of current problems in biomedical research9) and make the field more attractive to talented scientists.
  • Website to track career outcomes: “A website should be established to track graduate student and postdoc outcomes across institutions.”10

FoR has also proposed some ideas which seem less likely to us to be beneficial, including:

  • Mandating that universities expand and make improvements to postdoctoral training programs. We feel this proposal is rather vague, and are not confident that universities’ attempts at making such improvements would be successful.
  • Capping the number of junior scientists per principal investigator in laboratories. We would guess it would not be a positive change for some top researchers to be constrained by a cap of this kind.

Dr. McDowell is currently focused on two main research projects:

  1. Gathering evidence in favor of transitioning from use of postdocs to staff scientists
  2. Creating a guide for undergraduates and graduate students considering PhDs or postdocs

Budget and room for more funding

FoR is seeking $465,000 to $750,000 in funding for its first three years, primarily to cover the Executive Director’s salary, travel costs, and basic operational expenses. FoR may hire additional staff after its first year to assist with research and coordinating workshops. Our impression is that FoR plans to seek funding for individual workshops from additional sources.

FoR also plans to seek funding from other sources, including applying for project grants to carry out specific studies and activities.

Risks of the grant

We expect that having a significant effect on the problems in science policy and infrastructure generally, including the problems FoR plans to address, will be intrinsically difficult due to the many large, entrenched institutions involved. We also have two more particular concerns about this grant:

  • The FoR leadership has a fairly limited track record and is not highly experienced.
  • We would guess that it will be challenging for FoR to answer causal questions about the policies they plan to study (e.g. how changing postdoctoral positions into staff scientist positions will affect researcher productivity).

However, as described above, we think supporting FoR is a bet worth taking, given the lack of attention this area is currently receiving.

Goals for the grant

Potential positive outcomes of this grant might include FoR:

  • Hosting successful workshops that increase interest in these issues among postdocs and PhD students
  • Developing new proposals for improving science policy and infrastructure
  • Publishing good white papers and academic articles on potential policy changes (e.g. increasing the use of permanent staff scientists) and advocating for these policy changes with the NIH
  • Helping the Open Philanthropy Project and/or other organizations working in this space to identify job candidates

We also believe it is possible that the organization and its activities may improve in other ways as FoR staff develop a deeper understanding of the field through devoting full-time attention to these issues.

Follow-up expectations

We expect to have a conversation with FoR staff every 3-6 months for the next two years, with public notes if the conversation warrants it. At the one-year mark, we expect to provide an update on this grant, either by publishing public notes or by producing a brief write-up. Towards the end of the grant, we plan to attempt a more holistic and detailed evaluation of the grant’s performance.

However, we may abandon some or all of these follow-up expectations if scientific policy and infrastructure ceases to be an area of interest for us, or perform more follow-up than planned if this work becomes a key part of our priorities.

Our process

We heard of FoR when two of our scientific advisors recommended that we attend a workshop they put on at UCSF. Since this workshop was covering science policy issues of interest to us and we were looking for grantees in this area, we attended the workshop and met Gary McDowell. At the workshop, Gary told us that FoR was planning to create a non-profit organization and was looking for funding. We asked FoR to submit a proposal to us. Feedback from another source on FoR’s work was also an input to our decision.

Sources

Document Source
Alberts et al. 2014 Source (archive)
FoR Proposal Source
McDowell et al. 2015 Source (archive)