The National Institutes of Health (NIH), a key driving force of funding for research and scientific discovery (to the tune of $29 billion in taxpayer-funded dollars a year) is acknowledging that an alarmingly high percentage of early experimental results used to secure NIH funding turn out to be irreproducible. In an effort to curtail wasted spending on dead-end research projects whose results turn out to be unverifiable, the NIH is seeking out innovative solutions for validating new research initiatives before inventing in them.
In an article on Nature, writer Meredith Wadman reports that ”Senior NIH officials are now considering adding requirements to grant applications to make experimental validations routine for certain types of science, such as the foundational work that leads to costly clinical trials,” adding that, “Proposals under consideration include modifying peer review to bring greater scrutiny to the work a grant application is based on — perhaps just for applications that are likely to lead to clinical trials.”
Lawrence Tabak, the agency’s principal deputy director was frank in his new proposal for a more rigorous set of criteria in order for researchers to procure valuable NIH funding: “If the premise isn’t validatable, then we’re done; it doesn’t matter how well you wrote the grant.” Given the increased scrutiny that American taxpayers are levying against tax-funded governmental bodies. In many ways, this new, hardline approach that Tabek is suggesting is not dissimilar from the new peer review and organization structure put into place at CPRIT in response to the scandal that begun in December of 2012. Just as with CPRIT, where a lack of peer review and nonspecific criteria led to a shoddy and wasteful grant process, the NIH risks a similar potential loss of confidence if an increasing number of funded research projects reveal a lack of empirical evidence to support government-based funding.
Ms. Wadman’s article, however, does remind us that much of science relies on researchers constantly straying out into the vanguard, pushing the boundaries of what can be easily or empirically confirmed by conventional scientific method:
The very idea of a validation requirement makes some scientists queasy. “It’s a disaster,” says Peter Sorger, a systems biologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts. He says that frontier science often relies on ideas, tools and protocols that do not exist in run-of-the-mill labs, let alone in companies that have been contracted to perform verification. “It is unbelievably difficult to reproduce cutting-edge science,” he says.
Indeed, research grant providers like the NIH need to ensure that a dash of theoretical, “fringe” science can remain in the mix of what receives funding since, as the history of science has proven, while most of this science often results in failure, some of the most radical concepts come to bear critically important discoveries and innovations. That being said, scientific discovery in the modern era tends to be more iterative, and institutions like the NIH, in order to retain confidence from taxpayers, will need to ensure that their efforts remain viable in the pursuit of new discoveries, treatments, and cures.
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