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Encouraging Edge Science through NIH Funding Practices

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Science moves forward when scientists take risks.

“For example, one of the hottest new ideas in cancer treatment involves using patients’ own immune cells to treat their cancer,” writes Stanford Health Policy’s Jay Bhattacharya in this policy brief. “The researchers who worked on these ideas when they were novel risked failure, but still pursued them.” 

The National Institutes of Health plays an important role in addressing this fail-to-win strategy underlying scientific research, Bhattacharya said. With a $37 billion annual budget, the NIH is the world’s largest funder of biomedical research.

“As a public institution, it can be thought of as ‘patient capital,’ a funding source with a longtime horizon and an understanding that good ideas frequently lead down blind alleys,” Bhattacharya writes with his colleague, Mikko Packalen, a Stanford alumnus and associate professor of economics at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.

“By that standard, NIH ought to be putting money into novel ideas that cannot get funding from private sources,” they write.

But that doesn’t appear to be the case.

Bhattacharya, a professor of medicine with a PhD in economics, and Packalen conducted a quantitative analysis to measure the extent to which NIH funds novel ideas. They looked at 24 million biomedical research articles in the MEDLINE database published between 1950 and 2017 with an American first author.

“An article was considered novel if the newest idea on which it was built upon was relatively recent in the sense that the idea had first appeared in any biomedical research paper at most a few years prior,” they said in the policy brief for the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, where Bhattacharya is a senior fellow.

They found that from 2010 to 2016, the NIH disproportionately funded biomedical research based neither on the most recent ideas nor on the most longstanding ideas, but rather on those of intermediate vintage introduced into the literature between 1990 and 2005.

“Specifically, NIH funded research based on 10- to 25-year-old ideas at a 55 percent rate, compared with a 45 percent funding rate for more recent or older idea,” they write. “By contrast, from 1990 to 1999, NIH funded research based on new ideas at a higher rate than it funded research drawing on well-established ideas.

“This indicates that NIH has become less likely to support edge science over the past two decades,” the researchers concluded. “These results are disheartening and consistent with a growing body of scholarship that finds NIH review panels becoming more conservative and risk-averse.” 

Policy Reforms

The authors note the NIH recognizes the danger of underfunding high-risk ideas and has taken steps to counter “a creeping conservative bias” by increasing the number of training awards, paying bonuses to young researchers and developing methods for identifying high-risk ideas.

But more needs to be done, they said, recommending that the NIH:

  1. Reform the review process and rethink how review panel members are selected;
  2. Change the way it measures success to increase tolerance of failure;
  3. Develop ways to directly measure the novelty of ideas;
  4. Find additional ways to reward scientists working on novel ideas by taking steps to advance their careers.

“If the world’s foremost supporter of biomedical research has indeed become less open to edge science, as our analysis indicates, it bodes poorly for science.” 

Read the Full Policy Brief

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