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Princeton University — Rescuing Biomedical Research

Arda Mizrak, Augie Seone, and Karen Ruiz in Dr. David Morgan’s lab at the University of California, San Francisco (photo by Yolanda O’Bannon, April 2015, courtesy of Rescuing Biomedical Research)
Organization Name 
Award Date 
1/2016
Grant Amount 
$299,112
Purpose 
To support the Rescuing Biomedical Research project.
Topic (focus area) 

Published: January 2016

Representatives of Rescuing Biomedical Research reviewed this page prior to publication.

Rescuing Biomedical Research is a project based at Princeton University and led by the authors of a 2014 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences that made the case for addressing systemic flaws in biomedical research, outlining problems with the field’s current funding structures and career paths. The authors, four prominent biomedical researchers, have capitalized on interest in the paper, launching a website and assembling a steering committee dedicated to fostering continued discussion and advocacy on the issues identified in their paper.

Although we are still in the early stages of exploring science philanthropy, we are interested in investigating science policy and infrastructure reform, and we see this as an opportunity to explore that space. We also believe that this group represents the researchers best positioned to build consensus in their field, which could potentially lead to major policy reforms.

Based on these considerations, the Open Philanthropy Project is recommending a two-year grant in the amount of $299,112 to Rescuing Biomedical Research to support a full-time project staffer, as well as website maintenance, research, and travel.

Rationale for the grant

The cause

At present we are 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 an area we are interested in investigating further: the idea of science policy and infrastructure reform.

Background on Rescuing Biomedical Research

In April 2014, four prominent biomedical researchers published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) called “Rescuing biomedical research from its systemic flaws”,1 which we discussed in our blog post about science policy and infrastructure.

The paper offered strong and specific criticisms of the funding mechanisms supporting biomedical research in the US and their implications for basic science. The authors argued that the extreme competition created by too little funding and too many researchers has led to a grant review process that over-emphasizes incremental research at the expense of breakthrough fundamental science, and to the normalization of overly long postdoctoral training periods.

In addition, they argue that the funding application and review process is overly burdensome for both applicants and reviewers, leaving scientists in the field too little time to consider important problems in biomedical research.

The paper’s suggested reforms include:

  • Establishing a more “predictable and stable” federal budget for research and increasing the funds available for innovative government funding programs aimed at supporting fundamental science
  • Gradually changing how grant funding is structured so that trainees (graduate students and postdoctoral researchers) are funded by dedicated training grants
  • Revising the grant application and review process

The authors believes these changes would shift the professional balance away from trainees and toward staff scientists (whose positions are generally more secure and better paid, while not being on a track to becoming professors). This could lead to a reduction in the extreme competition for funding by easing the current dynamic in which research done today (with trainees doing much of the work) produces future competitors for funding.

Since publication, the authors (Bruce Alberts, Marc Kirschner, Shirley Tilghman, and Harold Varmus) have been working on an initiative called Rescuing Biomedical Research to define, analyze, and recommend solutions to systemic problems facing their field. They have recruited 12 additional scientists, university administrators, and policy makers at various career stages to form a steering committee that meets monthly via conference call and oversees a website dedicated to this issue.

Proposed activities

This grant2 will allow the group to hire a full-time staff person, who will be responsible for the day-to-day coordination of the project, including:

  • Administering the website, which will aim to source ideas for reform from the biomedical research community, and soliciting and curating new submissions to the site (these will be approved by the steering committee)
  • Managing the steering committee’s schedule, including organizing the biannual meetings of the steering committee and its monthly conference calls
  • Ensuring that the project is represented by at least one of its members at important conferences, seminars and workshops

The group has also assembled several working groups that will focus on data collection and other tasks related to the project’s agenda in an attempt to generate specific proposals for reform. Although this grant will not directly support these working groups, the full-time hire will be responsible for supporting their efforts, including by providing analysis on relevant issues and by collecting quantitative data on the policy and economic issues that inform the groups’ proposals.

Budget

The Open Philanthropy Project is providing a grant in the amount of $299,112 to support this work over the next two years, including $180,000 for salary and $61,920 for benefits, as well as $20,000 for research and travel, $10,000 for website management, and $27,192 in overhead.

The case for the grant

This project is led by high-profile scientists who dominate the public conversation about biomedical science reform, and who we believe are likely to be taken seriously on these issues. All four co-authors have served as professors at major research universities, and between them, they have served in high-profile positions across academia, government and publishing (Dr. Tilghman is a former President of Princeton University, Dr. Varmus is the former head of both the NIH and National Cancer Institute, and Dr. Alberts is a former Editor-in-Chief of Science and a former President of the National Academy of Sciences).

From our perspective, the best-case outcome of this grant would be a noticeable shift toward major reform in biomedical research. Although most scientists in the field recognize the problems outlined in Alberts et al. 2014, according to Professor Tilghman, they are deeply divided about how to solve them, and this lack of consensus in the community is inhibiting progress toward finding a solution. The group aims to build that consensus, and if it is successful among fellow high-profile, influential scientists, we believe there is a reasonable chance that it will effect policy change.

We are aware that many of the ideas expressed in this paper have been raised in previous publications. We searched for past reports on improving science policy (and in particular, on improving the dynamics of post-doctoral positions), to help us understand past work on this issue. The reports we identified are listed in this footnote.3 We found a number of publications with similar recommendations to the 2014 PNAS paper. However, we feel that the PNAS paper was substantially different from these, primarily due to its more ambitious scope and more forceful tone. It also outlined what we found to be the broadest and most persuasive case for reducing the number of postdoctoral positions funded.4

Even if the grant does not directly lead to major policy change, this funding will support more thought on this issue, and may attract additional attention (and, potentially, funding). In addition to allowing Professor Tilghman and other prominent researchers to continue their work on this issue, supporting a full-time staffer dedicated to soliciting ideas for reform from the field seems likely to generate more thought, discussion, connections, and proposals.

Making this grant also offers a number of opportunities for the Open Philanthropy Project. Because one goal of the project is to spur more conversation and connection around these issues, it could provide an opportunity to identify researchers or groups we ultimately want to fund for related projects.

Finally, we hope that funding this group will help to clarify our science policy agenda and establish the Open Philanthropy Project as a more widely known funder in this space.

Risks to success

The broad case for reforming science policy infrastructure and the case for supporting this group in particular are both strong in our view, but we have several concerns about this specific project’s proposed scope of work.

The main risk in supporting this project is that the grant may not lead to the systemic change we would like to see.

Secondarily, the priorities outlined in the group’s proposal do not always align with our understanding of the systemic change that needs to happen in this field. Some of the areas identified as priorities seem minor to us compared to the deeper systemic flaws outlined in Alberts et al. 2014.

We are also somewhat concerned about the scope of the group’s proposed activities. We would ideally like to have seen a less conservative approach that included a greater time commitment from the senior scientists leading the project. A related concern is that the job description for the full-time hire is primarily administrative, with the majority of the substantive workload falling on senior scientists who may not be able to contribute much time to the project.

With these concerns in mind, we are hoping primarily for this grant to support a heightened level of discussion that may lead to other giving opportunities in the future. However, it is possible that it will lead to tangible progress more directly than we would guess.

Room for more funding

After several months of outreach and consideration, we do not believe that other funders plan to fund this work in the near future; in particular, we do not believe that the project would have received funding to hire a full time staffer without this grant.

Plans for learning and follow-up

We plan a relatively light level of follow-up for this grant. We plan to check in roughly annually, and ask questions such as the following:

  • What output or effects have the meetings of the steering committee produced?
  • Is the website a useful mechanism for generating ideas for reform?
  • Has the group generated specific and realistic proposals for reform? Is the group acting on them? Are others in the field?
  • To what extent has the group succeeded in building consensus in the field around their proposals?
  • How has the full-time staffer used their time?

Our Process

Bruce Alberts read our science policy and infrastructure post, expressed interest in discussing the issue, and shared the Rescuing Biomedical Research website with us. After further discussion, he directed us to Professor Tilghman. We spent some time discussing the group’s goals, plans, and funding situation with Professor Tilghman before deciding to make this grant.

Sources

Document Source
Alberts et al. 2014 Source (archive)
Benderly 2012 Source (archive)
Benderly 2013 Source (archive)
Benderly 2014 Source (archive)
Bourne 2013 Source (archive)
Freeman 2002 Source (archive)
National Research Council 2005 Source (archive)
National Research Council 2012 Source (archive)
Rescuing Biomedical Research Proposal 2015 Source
The National Academies 2014 Source (archive)
  • 1. Alberts et al. 2014
  • 2. The full Rescuing Biomedical Research grant proposal can be found here: Rescuing Biomedical Research Proposal 2015
  • 3.

    Examples of additional articles and reports we found on this or similar topics:

  • 4.

    “There is a no more worrisome consequence of the hypercompetitive culture of biomedical science than the pall it is casting on early careers of graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and young investigators. A recent study commissioned by NIH Director Francis Collins documented the rapid growth in the number of biomedical PhDs and postdoctoral fellows trained in the United States… As those trainees complete their studies, they have come face to face with slowdowns or contractions in the employment sectors— academia, government, and the pharmaceutical and biotech industries—that could and should benefit from their long years of training. This has led to an extended occupancy of training positions, coupled to greatly increased expectations from prospective employers for prior productivity.

    From the early 1990s, every labor economist who has studied the pipeline for the biomedical workforce has proclaimed it to be broken. However, little has been done to reform the system, primarily because it continues to benefit more established and hence more influential scientists and because it has undoubtedly produced great science.

    … mere discussion will not suffice. Critical action is needed on several fronts by many parties to reform the enterprise. No less than the future vitality of US biomedical science is at stake.” Alberts et al. 2014.