Crowdfunding and Tribefunding in Science

Competition for government research grants to fund scientific research remains fierce in the United States. The budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which constitute the major source of funding for US biological and medical research, has been increased only modestly during the past decade but it is not even keeping up with inflation. This problem is compounded by the fact that more scientists are applying for grants now than one or two decades ago, forcing the NIH to enforce strict cut-offs and only fund the top 10-20% of all submitted research proposals. Such competition ought to be good for the field because it could theoretically improve the quality of science. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to discern differences between excellent research grants. For example, if an institute of the NIH has a cut-off at the 13 percentile range, then a grant proposal judged to be in the top 10% would receive funding but a proposal in top 15% would end up not being funded. In an era where universities are also scaling back their financial support for research, an unfunded proposal could ultimately lead to the closure of a research laboratory and the dismissal of several members of a research team. Since the prospective assessment of a research proposal’s scientific merits are somewhat subjective, it is quite possible that the budget constraints are creating cemeteries of brilliant ideas and concepts, a world of scientific what-ifs that are forever lost.

Red Panda
Red Panda

How do we scientists deal with these scenarios? Some of us keep soldiering on, writing one grant after the other. Others change and broaden the direction of their research, hoping that perhaps research proposals in other areas are more likely to receive the elusive scores that will qualify for funding. Yet another approach is to submit research proposals to philanthropic foundations or non-profit organizations, but most of these organizations tend to focus on research which directly impacts human health. Receiving a foundation grant to study the fundamental mechanisms by which the internal clocks of plants coordinate external timing cues such as sunlight, food and temperature, for example, would be quite challenging. One alternate source of research funding that is now emerging is “scientific crowdfunding” in which scientists use web platforms to present their proposed research project to the public and thus attract donations from a large number of supporters. The basic underlying idea is that instead of receiving a $50,000 research grant from one foundation or government agency, researchers may receive smaller donations from 10, 50 or even a 100 supporters and thus finance their project.

The website experiment.com is a scientific crowdfunding platform which presents an intriguing array of projects in search of backers, ranging from “Death of a Tyrant: Help us Solve a Late Cretaceous Dinosaur Mystery!” to “Eating tough stuff with floppy jaws – how do freshwater rays eat crabs, insects, and mollusks?” Many of the projects include a video in which the researchers outline the basic goals and significance of their project and then also provide more detailed information on the webpage regarding how the funds will be used. There is also a “Discussion” section for each proposed project in which researchers answer questions raised by potential backers and, importantly, a “Results” in which researchers can report emerging results once their project is funded.

How can scientists get involved in scientific crowdfunding? Julien Vachelard and colleagues recently published an excellent overview of scientific crowdfunding. They analyzed the projects funded on experiment.com and found that projects which successfully achieved the funding goal tend to have 30-40 backers. The total amount of funds raised for most projects ranged from about $3,000 to $5,000. While these amounts are impressive, they are still far lower than a standard foundation or government agency grant in biomedical research. These smaller amounts could support limited materials to expand ongoing projects, but they are not sufficient to carry out standard biomedical research projects which cover salaries and stipends of the researchers. The annual stipends for postdoctoral research fellows alone run in the $40,000 – $55,000 range.

Vachelard and colleagues also provide great advice for how scientists can increase the likelihood of funding. Attention span is limited on the internet so researchers need to convey the key message of their research proposal in a clear, succinct and engaging manner. It is best to use powerful images and videos, set realistic goals (such as $3,000 to $5,000), articulate what the funds will be used for, participate in discussions to answer questions and also update backers with results as they emerge. Presenting research in a crowdfunding platform is an opportunity to educate the public and thus advance science, forcing scientists to develop better communication skills. These collateral benefits to the scientific enterprise extend beyond the actual amount of funding that is solicited.

One of the concerns that is voiced about scientific crowdfunding is that it may only work for “panda bear science“, i.e. scientific research involving popular themes such as cute and cuddly animals or studying life on other planets. However, a study of what actually gets funded in a scientific crowdfunding campaign revealed that the subject matter was not as important as how well the researchers communicated with their audience. A bigger challenge for the long-term success of scientific crowdfunding may be the limited amounts that are raised and therefore only cover the cost of small sub-projects but are neither sufficient to embark on exploring exciting new ideas and independent ideas nor offset salary and personnel costs. Donating $20 or $50 to a project is very different from donating amounts such as $1,000 because the latter requires not only the necessary financial resources but also a represents a major personal investment in the success of the research project. To initiate an exciting new biomedical research project in the $50,000 or $100,000 range, one needs several backers who are willing to donate $1,000 or more.

Perhaps one solution could be to move from a crowdfunding towards a tribefunding model. Crowds consist of a mass of anonymous people, mostly strangers in a confined space who do not engage each other. Tribes, on the other hand, are characterized by individuals who experience a sense of belonging and fellowship, they share and take responsibility for each other. The “tribes” in scientific tribefunding would consist of science supporters or enthusiasts who recognize the importance of the scientific work and also actively participate in discussions not just with the scientists but also with each other. Members of a paleontology tribe could include specialists and non-specialists who are willing to put in the required time to study the scientific background of a proposed paleontology research project, understand how it would advance the field and how even negative results (which are quite common in science) could be meaningful.

Tribefunding in higher education and science may sound like a novel concept but certain aspects of tribefunding are already common practice in the United States, albeit under different names. When wealthy alumni establish endowments for student scholarships, fellowship programs or research centers at their alma mater, it is in part because they feel a tribe-like loyalty towards the institutions that laid the cornerstones of their future success. The students and scholars who will benefit from these endowments are members of the same academic institution or tribe. The difference between the currently practiced form of philanthropic funding and the proposed tribefunding model is that tribe identity would not be defined by where one graduated from but instead by scientific interests.

Tribefunding could also impact the review process of scientific proposals. Currently, peer reviewers who assess the quality of scientific proposals for government agencies spend a substantial amount of time assessing the strengths and limitations of each proposal, and then convene either in person or via conference calls to arrive at a consensus regarding the merits of a proposal. Researchers often invest months of effort when they prepare research proposals which is why peer reviewers take their work very seriously and devote the required time to review each proposal carefully. Although the peer review system for grant proposals is often criticized because reviewers can make errors when they assess the quality of proposals, there are no established alternatives for how to assess research proposals. Most peer reviewers also realize that they are part of a “tribe”, with the common interest of selecting the best science. However, the definition of a “peer” is usually limited to other scientists, most of whom are tenured professors at academic institutions and does not really solicit input from non-academic science supporters.  In a tribefunding model, the definition of a “peer” would be expanded to professional scientists as well as science supporters for any given area of science. All members of the tribe could participate during the review and selection of the best projects  as well as throughout the funding period of the research projects that receive the support.

Merging the grassroots character and public outreach of crowdfunding with the sense of fellowship and active dialogue in a “scientific tribe” could take scientific crowdfunding to the next level. A comment section on a webpage is not sufficient to develop such a “tribe” affiliation but regular face-to-face meetings or conventional telephone/Skype conference calls involving several backers (independent of whether they can donate $50 or $5,000) may be more suitable. Developing a sense of ownership through this kind of communication would mean that every member of the science “tribe” realizes that they are a stakeholder. This sense of project ownership may not only increase donations, but could also create a grassroots synergy between laboratory and tribe, allowing for meaningful education and intellectual exchange.

Reference:

Vachelard J, Gambarra-Soares T, Augustini G, Riul P, Maracaja-Coutinho V (2016) A Guide to Scientific Crowdfunding. PLoS Biol 14(2): e1002373. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1002373

Note: An earlier version of this article was first published on the 3Quarksdaily blog.

 

ResearchBlogging.org

Vachelard J, Gambarra-Soares T, Augustini G, Riul P, & Maracaja-Coutinho V (2016). A Guide to Scientific Crowdfunding. PLoS Biology, 14 (2) PMID: 26886064

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The Dire State of Science in the Muslim World

Universities and the scientific infrastructures in Muslim-majority countries need to undergo radical reforms if they want to avoid falling by the wayside in a world characterized by major scientific and technological innovations. This is the conclusion reached by Nidhal Guessoum and Athar Osama in their recent commentary “Institutions: Revive universities of the Muslim world“, published in the scientific journal Nature. The physics and astronomy professor Guessoum (American University of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates) and Osama, who is the founder of the Muslim World Science Initiative, use the commentary to summarize the key findings of the report “Science at Universities of the Muslim World” (PDF), which was released in October 2015 by a task force of policymakers, academic vice-chancellors, deans, professors and science communicators. This report is one of the most comprehensive analyses of the state of scientific education and research in the 57 countries with a Muslim-majority population, which are members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

Map of Saudi Arabia in electronic circuits via Shutterstock (copyright drical)
Map of Saudi Arabia using electronic circuits via Shutterstock (copyright drical)

Here are some of the key findings:

1.    Lower scientific productivity in the Muslim world: The 57 Muslim-majority countries constitute 25% of the world’s population, yet they only generate 6% of the world’s scientific publications and 1.6% of the world’s patents.

2.    Lower scientific impact of papers published in the OIC countries: Not only are Muslim-majority countries severely under-represented in terms of the numbers of publications, the papers which do get published are cited far less than the papers stemming from non-Muslim countries. One illustrative example is that of Iran and Switzerland. In the 2014 SCImago ranking of publications by country, Iran was the highest-ranked Muslim-majority country with nearly 40,000 publications, just slightly ahead of Switzerland with 38,000 publications – even though Iran’s population of 77 million is nearly ten times larger than that of Switzerland. However, the average Swiss publication was more than twice as likely to garner a citation by scientific colleagues than an Iranian publication, thus indicating that the actual scientific impact of research in Switzerland was far greater than that of Iran.

To correct for economic differences between countries that may account for the quality or impact of the scientific work, the analysis also compared selected OIC countries to matched non-Muslim countries with similar per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) values (PDF). The per capita GDP in 2010 was $10,136 for Turkey, $8,754 for Malaysia and only $7,390 for South Africa. However, South Africa still outperformed both Turkey and Malaysia in terms of average citations per scientific paper in the years 2006-2015 (Turkey: 5.6; Malaysia: 5.0; South Africa: 9.7).

3.    Muslim-majority countries make minimal investments in research and development: The world average for investing in research and development is roughly 1.8% of the GDP. Advanced developed countries invest up to 2-3 percent of their GDP, whereas the average for the OIC countries is only 0.5%, less than a third of the world average! One could perhaps understand why poverty-stricken Muslim countries such as Pakistan do not have the funds to invest in research because their more immediate concerns are to provide basic necessities to the population. However, one of the most dismaying findings of the report is the dismally low rate of research investments made by the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC, the economic union of six oil-rich gulf countries Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, United Arab Emirates and Qatar with a mean per capita GDP of over $30,000 which is comparable to that of the European Union). Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, for example, invest less than 0.1% of their GDP in research and development, far lower than the OIC average of 0.5%.

So how does one go about fixing this dire state of science in the Muslim world? Some fixes are rather obvious, such as increasing the investment in scientific research and education, especially in the OIC countries which have the financial means and are currently lagging far behind in terms of how much funds are made available to improve the scientific infrastructures. Guessoum and Athar also highlight the importance of introducing key metrics to assess scientific productivity and the quality of science education. It is not easy to objectively measure scientific and educational impact, and one can argue about the significance or reliability of any given metric. But without any metrics, it will become very difficult for OIC universities to identify problems and weaknesses, build new research and educational programs and reward excellence in research and teaching. There is also a need for reforming the curriculum so that it shifts its focus from lecture-based teaching, which is so prevalent in OIC universities, to inquiry-based teaching in which students learn science hands-on by experimentally testing hypotheses and are encouraged to ask questions.

In addition to these commonsense suggestions, the task force also put forward a rather intriguing proposition to strengthen scientific research and education: place a stronger emphasis on basic liberal arts in science education. I could not agree more because I strongly believe that exposing science students to the arts and humanities plays a key role in fostering the creativity and curiosity required for scientific excellence. Science is a multi-disciplinary enterprise, and scientists can benefit greatly from studying philosophy, history or literature. A course in philosophy, for example, can teach science students to question their basic assumptions about reality and objectivity, encourage them to examine their own biases, challenge authority and understand the importance of doubt and uncertainty, all of which will likely help them become critical thinkers and better scientists.

However, the specific examples provided by Guessoum and Athar do not necessarily indicate a support for this kind of a broad liberal arts education. They mention the example of the newly founded private Habib University in Karachi which mandates that all science and engineering students also take classes in the humanities, including a two semester course in “hikma” or “traditional wisdom”. Upon reviewing the details of this philosophy course on the university’s website, it seems that the course is a history of Islamic philosophy focused on antiquity and pre-modern texts which date back to the “Golden Age” of Islam. The task force also specifically applauds an online course developed by Ahmed Djebbar. He is an emeritus science historian at the University of Lille in France, which attempts to stimulate scientific curiosity in young pre-university students by relating scientific concepts to great discoveries from the Islamic “Golden Age”. My concern is that this is a rather Islamocentric form of liberal arts education. Do students who have spent all their lives growing up in a Muslim society really need to revel in the glories of a bygone era in order to get excited about science? Does the Habib University philosophy course focus on Islamic philosophy because the university feels that students should be more aware of their cultural heritage or are there concerns that exposing students to non-Islamic ideas could cause problems with students, parents, university administrators or other members of society who could perceive this as an attack on Islamic values? If the true purpose of liberal arts education is to expand the minds of students by exposing them to new ideas, wouldn’t it make more sense to focus on non-Islamic philosophy? It is definitely not a good idea to coddle Muslim students by adulating the “Golden Age” of Islam or using kid gloves when discussing philosophy in order to avoid offending them.

This leads us to a question that is not directly addressed by Guessoum and Osama: How “liberal” is a liberal arts education in countries with governments and societies that curtail the free expression of ideas? The Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison because of his liberal views that were perceived as an attack on religion. Faculty members at universities in Saudi Arabia who teach liberal arts courses are probably very aware of these occupational hazards. At first glance, professors who teach in the sciences may not seem to be as susceptible to the wrath of religious zealots and authoritarian governments. However, the above-mentioned interdisciplinary nature of science could easily spell trouble for free-thinking professors or students. Comments about evolutionary biology, the ethics of genome editing or discussing research on sexuality could all be construed as a violation of societal and religious norms.

The 2010 study Faculty perceptions of academic freedom at a GCC university surveyed professors at an anonymous GCC university (most likely Qatar University since roughly 25% of the faculty members were Qatari nationals and the authors of the study were based in Qatar) regarding their views of academic freedom. The vast majority of faculty members (Arab and non-Arab) felt that academic freedom was important to them and that their university upheld academic freedom. However, in interviews with individual faculty members, the researchers found that the professors were engaging in self-censorship in order to avoid untoward repercussions. Here are some examples of the comments from the faculty at this GCC University:

“I am fully aware of our culture. So, when I suggest any topic in class, I don’t need external censorship except mine.”

“Yes. I avoid subjects that are culturally inappropriate.”

“Yes, all the time. I avoid all references to Israel or the Jewish people despite their contributions to world culture. I also avoid any kind of questioning of their religious tradition. I do this out of respect.”

This latter comment is especially painful for me because one of my heroes who inspired me to become a cell biologist was the Italian Jewish scientist Rita Levi-Montalcini. She revolutionized our understanding of how cells communicate with each other using growth factors. She was also forced to secretly conduct her experiments in her bedroom because the Fascists banned all “non-Aryans” from going to the university laboratory. Would faculty members who teach the discovery of growth factors at this GCC University downplay the role of the Nobel laureate Levi-Montalcini because she was Jewish? We do not know how prevalent this form of self-censorship is in other OIC countries because the research on academic freedom in Muslim-majority countries is understandably scant. Few faculty members would be willing to voice their concerns about government or university censorship and admitting to self-censorship is also not easy.

The task force report on science in the universities of Muslim-majority countries is an important first step towards reforming scientific research and education in the Muslim world. Increasing investments in research and development, using and appropriately acting on carefully selected metrics as well as introducing a core liberal arts curriculum for science students will probably all significantly improve the dire state of science in the Muslim world. However, the reform of the research and education programs needs to also include discussions about the importance of academic freedom. If Muslim societies are serious about nurturing scientific innovation, then they will need to also ensure that scientists, educators and students will be provided with the intellectual freedom that is the cornerstone of scientific creativity.

References:

Guessoum, N., & Osama, A. (2015). Institutions: Revive universities of the Muslim world. Nature, 526(7575), 634-6.

Romanowski, M. H., & Nasser, R. (2010). Faculty perceptions of academic freedom at a GCC university. Prospects, 40(4), 481-497.

 

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 Note: An earlier version of this article was first published on the 3Quarksdaily blog.

 

ResearchBlogging.org

 

Guessoum N, & Osama A (2015). Institutions: Revive universities of the Muslim world. Nature, 526 (7575), 634-6 PMID: 26511563

 

 

Romanowski, M., & Nasser, R. (2010). Faculty perceptions of academic freedom at a GCC university PROSPECTS, 40 (4), 481-497 DOI: 10.1007/s11125-010-9166-2

Blissful Ignorance: How Environmental Activists Shut Down Molecular Biology Labs in High Schools

Hearing about the HannoverGEN project made me feel envious and excited. Envious, because I wish my high school had offered the kind of hands-on molecular biology training provided to high school students in Hannover, the capital of the German state of Niedersachsen. Excited, because it reminded me of the joy I felt when I first isolated DNA and ran gels after restriction enzyme digests during my first year of university in Munich. I knew that many of the students at the HannoverGEN high schools would be similarly thrilled by their laboratory experience and perhaps even pursue careers as biologists or biochemists.

dna-163466_640
What did HannoverGEN entail? It was an optional pilot program initiated and funded by the state government of Niedersachsen at four high schools in the Hannover area. Students enrolled in the HannoverGEN classes would learn to use molecular biology tools typically reserved for college-level or graduate school courses in order to study plant genetics. Some of the basic experiments involved isolating DNA from cabbage or how learning how bacteria transfer genes to plants, more advanced experiments enabled the students to analyze whether or not the genome of a provided maize sample had been genetically modified. Each experimental unit was accompanied by relevant theoretical instruction on the molecular mechanisms of gene expression and biotechnology as well as ethical discussions regarding the benefits and risks of generating genetically modified organisms (“GMOs”). The details of the HannoverGEN program are only accessible through the the Wayback Machine Internet archive because the award-winning educational program and the associated website were shut down in 2013 at the behest of German anti-GMO activist groups, environmental activists, Greenpeace, the Niedersachsen Green Party and the German organic food industry.

Why did these activists and organic food industry lobbyists oppose a government-funded educational program which improved the molecular biology knowledge and expertise of high school students? A press release entitled “Keine Akzeptanzbeschaffung für Agro-Gentechnik an Schulen!” (“No Acceptance for Agricultural Gene Technology at Schools“) in 2012 by an alliance representing “organic” or “natural food” farmers accompanied by the publication of a critical “study” with the same title (PDF), which was funded by this alliance as well as its anti-GMO partners, gives us some clues. They feared that the high school students might become too accepting of biotechnology in agriculture and that the curriculum did not sufficiently highlight all the potential dangers of GMOs. By allowing the ethical discussions to not only discuss the risks but also mention the benefits of genetically modifying crops, students might walk away with the idea that GMOs could be beneficial for humankind. The group believed that taxpayer money should not be used to foster special interests such as those of the agricultural industry which may want to use GMOs.

A response by the University of Hannover (PDF), which had helped develop the curriculum and coordinated the classes for the high school students, carefully analyzed the complaints of the anti-GMO activists. The author of the anti-HannoverGEN “study” had not visited the HannoverGEN laboratories, nor had he had interviewed the biology teachers or students enrolled in the classes. In fact, his critique was based on weblinks that were not even used in the curriculum by the HannoverGEN teachers or students. His analysis ignored the balanced presentation of biotechnology that formed the basis of the HannoverGEN curriculum and that discussing potential risks of genetic modification was a core topic in all the classes.

Unfortunately, this shoddily prepared “study” had a significant impact, in part because it was widely promoted by partner organizations. Its release in the autumn of 2012 came at an opportune time for political activists because Niedersachsen was about to have an election. Campaigning against GMOs seemed like a perfect cause for the Green Party and a high school program which taught the use of biotechnology to high school students became a convenient lightning rod. When the Social Democrats and the Green Party formed a coalition after winning the election in early 2013, nixing the HannoverGEN high school program was formally included in the so-called coalition contract. This is a document in which coalition partners outline the key goals for the upcoming four year period. When one considers how many major issues and problems the government of a large German state has to face, such as healthcare, education, unemployment or immigration, it is mind-boggling that de-funding a program involving only four high schools received so much attention that it needed to be anchored in the coalition contract. In fact, it is a testimony to the influence and zeal of the anti-GMO lobby.

Once the cancellation of HannoverGEN was announced, the Hannover branch of Greenpeace also took credit for campaigning against this high school program and celebrated its victory. The Greenpeace anti-GMO activist David Petersen said that the program was too cost intensive because equipping high school laboratories with state-of-the-art molecular biology equipment had already cost more than 1 million Euros. The previous center-right government which had initiated the HannoverGEN project was planning on expanding the program to even more high schools because of the program’s success and national recognition for innovative teaching. According to Petersen, this would have wasted even more taxpayer money without adequately conveying the dangers of using GMOs in agriculture.

The scientific community was shaken up by the decision of the new Social Democrat-Green Party coalition government in Niedersachsen. This was an attack on the academic freedom of schools under the guise of accusing them of promoting special interests while ignoring that the anti-GMO activists were representing their own special interests. The “study” attacking HannoverGEN was funded by the lucrative “organic” or “natural food” food industry! Scientists and science writers such as Martin Ballaschk or Lars Fischer wrote excellent critical articles stating that squashing high-quality, hand-on science programs could not lead to better decision-making. How could ignorant students have a better grasp of GMO risks and benefits than those who receive relevant formal science education and thus make truly informed decisions? Sadly, this outcry by scientists and science writers did not make much of a difference. It did not seem that the media felt this was much of a cause to fight for. I wonder if the media response would have been just as lackluster if the government had de-funded a hands-on science lab to study the effects of climate change.

In 2014, the government of Niedersachsen then announced that they would resurrect an advanced biology laboratory program for high schools with the generic and vague title “Life Science Lab”. By removing the word “Gen” from its title which seems to trigger visceral antipathy among anti-GMO activists, de-emphasizing genome science and by also removing any discussion of GMOs from the curriculum, this new program would leave students in the dark about GMOs. Ignorance is bliss from an anti-GMO activist perspective because the void of scientific ignorance can be filled with fear.

From the very first day that I could vote in Germany during the federal election of 1990, I always viewed the Green Party as a party that represented my generation. A party of progressive ideas, concerned about our environment and social causes. However, the HannoverGEN incident is just one example of how the Green Party is caving in to ideologies, thus losing its open-mindedness and progressive nature. In the United States, the anti-science movement, which attacks teaching climate change science or evolutionary biology at schools, tends to be rooted in the right wing political spectrum. Right wingers or libertarians are the ones who always complain about taxpayer dollars being wasted and used to promote agendas in schools and universities. But we should not forget that there is also a different anti-science movement rooted in the leftist and pro-environmental political spectrum – not just in Germany. As a scientist, I feel that it is becoming increasingly difficult to support the Green Party because of its anti-science stance.

I worry about all anti-science movements, especially those which attack science education. There is nothing wrong with questioning special interests and ensuring that school and university science curricula are truly balanced. But the balance needs to be rooted in scientific principles, not political ideologies. Science education has a natural bias – it is biased towards knowledge that is backed up by scientific evidence. We can hypothetically discuss dangers of GMOs but the science behind the dangers of GMO crops is very questionable. Just like environmental activists and leftists agree with us scientists that we do not need to give climate change deniers and creationists “balanced” treatment in our science curricula, they should also accept that much of the “anti-GMO science” is currently more based on ideology than on actual scientific data. Our job is to provide excellent science education so that our students can critically analyze and understand scientific research, independent of whether or not it supports our personal ideologies.

 

Note: An earlier version of this article was first published on the 3Quarksdaily blog.

Murder Your Darling Hypotheses But Do Not Bury Them

“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”

Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863–1944). On the Art of Writing. 1916

 

Murder your darlings. The British writer Sir Arthur Quiller Crouch shared this piece of writerly wisdom when he gave his inaugural lecture series at Cambridge, asking writers to consider deleting words, phrases or even paragraphs that are especially dear to them. The minute writers fall in love with what they write, they are bound to lose their objectivity and may not be able to judge how their choice of words will be perceived by the reader. But writers aren’t the only ones who can fall prey to the Pygmalion syndrome. Scientists often find themselves in a similar situation when they develop “pet” or “darling” hypotheses.

Hypothesis via Shutterstock
Hypothesis via Shutterstock

How do scientists decide when it is time to murder their darling hypotheses? The simple answer is that scientists ought to give up scientific hypotheses once the experimental data is unable to support them, no matter how “darling” they are. However, the problem with scientific hypotheses is that they aren’t just generated based on subjective whims. A scientific hypothesis is usually put forward after analyzing substantial amounts of experimental data. The better a hypothesis is at explaining the existing data, the more “darling” it becomes. Therefore, scientists are reluctant to discard a hypothesis because of just one piece of experimental data that contradicts it.

In addition to experimental data, a number of additional factors can also play a major role in determining whether scientists will either discard or uphold their darling scientific hypotheses. Some scientific careers are built on specific scientific hypotheses which set apart certain scientists from competing rival groups. Research grants, which are essential to the survival of a scientific laboratory by providing salary funds for the senior researchers as well as the junior trainees and research staff, are written in a hypothesis-focused manner, outlining experiments that will lead to the acceptance or rejection of selected scientific hypotheses. Well written research grants always consider the possibility that the core hypothesis may be rejected based on the future experimental data. But if the hypothesis has to be rejected then the scientist has to explain the discrepancies between the preferred hypothesis that is now falling in disrepute and all the preliminary data that had led her to formulate the initial hypothesis. Such discrepancies could endanger the renewal of the grant funding and the future of the laboratory. Last but not least, it is very difficult to publish a scholarly paper describing a rejected scientific hypothesis without providing an in-depth mechanistic explanation for why the hypothesis was wrong and proposing alternate hypotheses.

For example, it is quite reasonable for a cell biologist to formulate the hypothesis that protein A improves the survival of neurons by activating pathway X based on prior scientific studies which have shown that protein A is an activator of pathway X in neurons and other studies which prove that pathway X improves cell survival in skin cells. If the data supports the hypothesis, publishing this result is fairly straightforward because it conforms to the general expectations. However, if the data does not support this hypothesis then the scientist has to explain why. Is it because protein A did not activate pathway X in her experiments? Is it because in pathway X functions differently in neurons than in skin cells? Is it because neurons and skin cells have a different threshold for survival? Experimental results that do not conform to the predictions have the potential to uncover exciting new scientific mechanisms but chasing down these alternate explanations requires a lot of time and resources which are becoming increasingly scarce. Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some scientists may consciously or subconsciously ignore selected pieces of experimental data which contradict their darling hypotheses.

Let us move from these hypothetical situations to the real world of laboratories. There is surprisingly little data on how and when scientists reject hypotheses, but John Fugelsang and Kevin Dunbar at Dartmouth conducted a rather unique study “Theory and data interactions of the scientific mind: Evidence from the molecular and the cognitive laboratory” in 2004 in which they researched researchers. They sat in at scientific laboratory meetings of three renowned molecular biology laboratories at carefully recorded how scientists presented their laboratory data and how they would handle results which contradicted their predictions based on their hypotheses and models.

In their final analysis, Fugelsang and Dunbar included 417 scientific results that were presented at the meetings of which roughly half (223 out of 417) were not consistent with the predictions. Only 12% of these inconsistencies lead to change of the scientific model (and thus a revision of hypotheses). In the vast majority of the cases, the laboratories decided to follow up the studies by repeating and modifying the experimental protocols, thinking that the fault did not lie with the hypotheses but instead with the manner how the experiment was conducted. In the follow up experiments, 84 of the inconsistent findings could be replicated and this in turn resulted in a gradual modification of the underlying models and hypotheses in the majority of the cases. However, even when the inconsistent results were replicated, only 61% of the models were revised which means that 39% of the cases did not lead to any significant changes.

The study did not provide much information on the long-term fate of the hypotheses and models and we obviously cannot generalize the results of three molecular biology laboratory meetings at one university to the whole scientific enterprise. Also, Fugelsang and Dunbar’s study did not have a large enough sample size to clearly identify the reasons why some scientists were willing to revise their models and others weren’t. Was it because of varying complexity of experiments and models? Was it because of the approach of the individuals who conducted the experiments or the laboratory heads? I wish there were more studies like this because it would help us understand the scientific process better and maybe improve the quality of scientific research if we learned how different scientists handle inconsistent results.

In my own experience, I have also struggled with results which defied my scientific hypotheses. In 2002, we found that stem cells in human fat tissue could help grow new blood vessels. Yes, you could obtain fat from a liposuction performed by a plastic surgeon and inject these fat-derived stem cells into animal models of low blood flow in the legs. Within a week or two, the injected cells helped restore the blood flow to near normal levels! The simplest hypothesis was that the stem cells converted into endothelial cells, the cell type which forms the lining of blood vessels. However, after several months of experiments, I found no consistent evidence of fat-derived stem cells transforming into endothelial cells. We ended up publishing a paper which proposed an alternative explanation that the stem cells were releasing growth factors that helped grow blood vessels. But this explanation was not as satisfying as I had hoped. It did not account for the fact that the stem cells had aligned themselves alongside blood vessel structures and behaved like blood vessel cells.

Even though I “murdered” my darling hypothesis of fat –derived stem cells converting into blood vessel endothelial cells at the time, I did not “bury” the hypothesis. It kept ruminating in the back of my mind until roughly one decade later when we were again studying how stem cells were improving blood vessel growth. The difference was that this time, I had access to a live-imaging confocal laser microscope which allowed us to take images of cells labeled with red and green fluorescent dyes over long periods of time. Below, you can see a video of human bone marrow mesenchymal stem cells (labeled green) and human endothelial cells (labeled red) observed with the microscope overnight. The short movie compresses images obtained throughout the night and shows that the stem cells indeed do not convert into endothelial cells. Instead, they form a scaffold and guide the endothelial cells (red) by allowing them to move alongside the green scaffold and thus construct their network. This work was published in 2013 in the Journal of Molecular and Cellular Cardiology, roughly a decade after I had been forced to give up on the initial hypothesis. Back in 2002, I had assumed that the stem cells were turning into blood vessel endothelial cells because they aligned themselves in blood vessel like structures. I had never considered the possibility that they were scaffold for the endothelial cells.

This and other similar experiences have lead me to reformulate the “murder your darlings” commandment to “murder your darling hypotheses but do not bury them”. Instead of repeatedly trying to defend scientific hypotheses that cannot be supported by emerging experimental data, it is better to give up on them. But this does not mean that we should forget and bury those initial hypotheses. With newer technologies, resources or collaborations, we may find ways to explain inconsistent results years later that were not previously available to us. This is why I regularly peruse my cemetery of dead hypotheses on my hard drive to see if there are ways of perhaps resurrecting them, not in their original form but in a modification that I am now able to test.

 

Reference:

ResearchBlogging.org

Fugelsang, J., Stein, C., Green, A., & Dunbar, K. (2004). Theory and Data Interactions of the Scientific Mind: Evidence From the Molecular and the Cognitive Laboratory. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology/Revue canadienne de psychologie expérimentale, 58 (2), 86-95 DOI: 10.1037/h0085799

 

Note: An earlier version of this article first appeared on 3Quarksdaily.

New White House Budget: NIH funding will not be restored to pre-sequester levels

The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) recommended that the White House increase the annual NIH budget to $32 billion dollars to help restore US biomedical research funding levels to those of 2003 (link):

 

The broad program of research supported by NIH is essential for advancing our understanding of basic biological functions, reducing human suffering, and protecting the country against new and re-emerging disease threats. Biomedical research is also a primary source of new innovations in health care and other areas.

Exciting new NIH initiatives are poised to accelerate our progress in the search for cures. It would be tragic if we could not capitalize on the many opportunities before us. The development of a universal vaccine to protect adults and children against both seasonal and pandemic flu and development of gene chips and DNA sequencing technologies that can predict risk for high blood pressure, kidney disease, diabetes, and obesity are just a few of the research breakthroughs that will be delayed if we fail to sustain the investment in NIH. 

As a result of our prior investment, we are the world leader in biomedical research. We should not abdicate our competitive edge. Without adequate funding, NIH will have to sacrifice valuable lines of research. The termination of ongoing studies and the diminished availability of grant support will result in the closure of laboratories and the loss of highly skilled jobs. At a time when we are trying to encourage more students to pursue science and engineering studies, talented young scientists are being driven from science by the disruption of their training and lack of career opportunities. 

Rising costs of research, the increasing complexity of the scientific enterprise, and a loss of purchasing power at NIH due to flat budgets have made it increasingly competitive for individual investigators to obtain funding. Today, only one in six grant applications will be supported, the lowest rate in NIH history. Increasing the NIH budget to $32.0 billion would provide the agency with an additional $1.36 billion which could restore funding for R01 grants (multiyear awards to investigators for specified projects) back to the level achieved in 2003 and support an additional 1,700 researchers while still providing much needed financial support for other critical areas of the NIH portfolio.

Unfortunately, the newly released White House budget for 2015 (PDF) will only provide a minimal increase in annual NIH funding from $29.9 billion to $ 30.2 billion, which is still lower than the pre-sequester $30.6 billion.

It is much lower than what FASEB had suggested and it is going to be increasingly difficult for US biomedical research to sustain its competitive edge. The White House budget also emphasizes neuroscience and Alzheimer’s research:

 

Biomedical research contributes to improving the health of the American people. The Budget includes $30.2 billion for NIH to support research at institutions across the United States, continuing the Administration’s commitment to investment in Alzheimer’s research and NIH’s contribution to the multiagency BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) initiative. The Budget increases funding for innovative, high-risk high-reward research to help spur development of new therapeutics to treat diseases and disorders that affect millions of Americans, such as cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. The Budget includes funding for a new advanced research program modeled after the cutting-edge Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) program at the Department of Defense. NIH will also implement new policies to improve transparency and reduce administrative costs. The Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative includes an additional $970 million for NIH, which would support about 650 additional new grants and further increase funding for the BRAIN and DARPA-inspired initiatives, and invest in other critical priorities.

While this is good news for neuroscientists, the essentially flat NIH budget will force the NIH to cut funding to basic biomedical research in non-neuroscience areas including basic cell biology, molecular biology and biochemistry.

The outlook for US biomedical research remains gloomy.

 

Note: This article was first published on the “Fragments of Truth” blog.

NIH Grant Scores Are Poor Predictors Of Scientific Impact

The most important federal funding mechanism for biomedical research in the United States is the R01 grant proposal submitted to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Most scientists submitting R01 proposals request around $250,000 per year for 5 years. This may sound like a lot of money, but these requested funds have to pay for the salaries of the research staff including the salary of the principal investigator. The money that is left over once the salaries are subtracted has to cover the costs of new scientific equipment, maintenance contracts for existing equipment, monthly expenses for research reagents such as chemicals, cell lines, cell culture media and molecular biology assay kits, housing animals, user fees for research core facilities….. basically a very long list of expenditures. Universities that submit the grant proposals to the NIH add on their own “indirect costs” to pay for general expenses such as maintaining the building and providing general administrative support, but the researchers and their laboratories rarely receive any of these “indirect costs”.

Instead, the investigators who receive a notification that their R01 proposals have been awarded often find out that the NIH has reduced the requested money by either cutting the annual budget or by shortening the funding period from 5 years to 4 years. They then have to decide how to ensure that their laboratory will survive with the reduced funding, how they can ensure that nobody is forced to lose their jobs and that the research can be conducted under these financial constraints without compromising its scientific rigor. These scientists are the lucky ones, because the vast majority of the R01 proposals do not get funded. And the lack of R01 funding in recent years has forced many scientists to shut down their research laboratories.

annual-report-203762_640

When an R01 proposal is submitted to the NIH, it is assigned to one of its institutes such as the NHLBI (National Heart Lung and Blood Institute) or the NCI (National Cancer Institute) depending on the main research focus. Each institute of the NIH is allotted a certain budget for funding extramural applicants, so the institute assignment plays an important role in determining whether or not there is money available to fund the proposal. In addition to the institute assignment, each proposal is also assigned to a panel of expert peer reviewers, so called “study sections”. The study section members are active scientists who review the grant proposals and rank them by assigning scores to each grant. The grant proposals describe experiments that the respective applicants plan to conduct during the next five years. The study section members try to identify grant proposals that describe research which will have the highest impact on the field. They also have to take into account that the proposed work is based on solid preliminary data, that it will yield meaningful results even if the scientific hypotheses of the applicants turn out to be wrong and that the applicants have the necessary expertise and resources to conduct the work.

 

Identifying the grants that fall in the lower half of the rank list is not too difficult, because study section members can easily spot the grants which present a disorganized plan and rationale for the proposed experiments. But it becomes very challenging to discriminate between grants in the top half. Some study section members may think that a grant is outstanding (e.g. belongs in the top 10th percentile) whereas others may think that it is just good (e.g. belongs in the top 33rd percentile). After the study section members review each other’s critiques of the discussed grant, they usually come to a consensus, but everyone is aware of the difficulties of making such assessments. The very nature of research is the unpredictability of its path. It is impossible to make an objective assessment of the impact of a proposed five-year scientific project because a lot can happen during those five years. For example, nowadays one comes across many grant applications that propose to use the CRISPR genome editing tool to genetically modify cells. This technique has only become broadly available during the last 1-2 years and is quite exciting but we also do not know much about potential pitfalls of the approach. Some study section members are bound to be impressed by applicants who want to use this cutting-edge genome editing technique and rank their proposal highly, whereas other study section members may find this approach too premature. Small differences in the subjective assessments of the potential impact between study section members can result in a grant proposal receiving a 10th percentile score versus a 19th percentile score.

 

Ten or fifteen years ago, this difference in the percentile score would not have been too tragic because the NIH was funding more than 30% of the submitted research grant applications, but now the success rate has dropped down to 17%! Therefore, the subjective assessment of whether a grant deserves a 10th percentile versus a 19th percentile research impact score can determine whether or not the grant will be funded. This determination in turn will have a major impact on the personal lives and careers of the graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, research assistants and principal investigators who may depend on the funding of the submitted grant in order to keep their jobs and their laboratory running. It would be reassuring to know that the score assigned to a grant application is at least a good prognostic indicator of how much of a scientific impact the proposed research will have. It never feels good to deny research funding to a laboratory, but we also have a duty to fund the best research. If there was indeed a clear association between grant score and future impact, one could at least take solace in the fact that grant applications which received poor scores would have really not resulted in meaningful research.

 

A recent paper published in Circulation Research, a major cardiovascular research journal, challenges the assumption that the scores a grant application receives can reliably predict the future impact of the research. In the study “Percentile Ranking and Citation Impact of a Large Cohort of NHLBI-Funded Cardiovascular R01 Grants” by Danthi and colleagues, researchers at the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) reviewed the percentile ranking scores of 1,492 R01 grant applications assigned to the NHLBI as well as the productivity of the funded grants. They assessed grants funded 2001-2008 and the scientific publications ensuing as a result of the funding. Their basic finding is that there is no obvious correlation between the percentile score and the scientific impact, as assessed by the number of publications as well as the number of citations each publication received. The funded R01 grant applications were divided in three categories: Category 1= <10.0 % (i.e. the cream of the crop); Category 2 = 10.0 – 19.9% (i.e. pretty darn good) and Category 3 = 20.0 – 41.8% (good but not stellar). The median number of publications was 8.0 for Category 1, 8.0 for Category 2 and 8.5 for Category 3. This means that even though category 3 grants were deemed to be of significantly worse quality or impact than Category 1 applications, they resulted in just as many scientific publications. But what about the quality of the publications? Did the poorly scored Category 3 grant applications fund research that was of little impact? No, the scientific impact as assessed by citations of the published papers was the same for no matter how the grant applications had been ranked. In fact, the poorly scored grants (Category 3 grants) received less funding but still produced the same amount of publications and citations of the published research as their highly scored Category 1 counterparts.

 

There are few important limitations to this study. The scientific impact was measured as number of publications and number of citations, which are notoriously poor measures of impact. For example, a controversial paper may be refuted but if it is frequently cited in the context of the refutation, it would be considered “high impact”. Another limitation was the assessment of shared funding. In each category, the median number of grants acknowledged in a paper was 2.5. Because a single paper often involves the collaboration of multiple scientists, the collaborative papers routinely acknowledge all the research funding which contributed to the publication. In order to correct for this, the study adjusted the counts for publications and citations by dividing by the number of acknowledged grants. For example, if a paper cited three grants and garnered 30 citations, each grant would be credited with only a third of a publication (0.3333…) and with 10 citations. This is a rather crude method because it does not take into account that some papers are primarily funded by one grant and other grants may have just provided minor support. It is also not clear from the methodology how the study accounted for funding from other government agencies (such as other NIH institutes or funding from the Department of Veterans Affairs). However, it is noteworthy that when they analyzed the papers that were only funded by one grant, they still found no difference in the productivity of the three categories of percentile scores.  The current study only focused on NHLBI grants (cardiovascular, lung and blood research) so it is not clear whether these findings can be generalized to all NIH grants. A fascinating question that was also not addressed by the study is why the Category 3 grants received the lower score. Did the study section reviewers feel that the applicants were proposing research that was too high-risk? Were the grant applicants unable to formulate their ideas in a cogent fashion? Performing such analyses would require reviewing the study sections’ summary statements for each grant but this cumbersome analysis would be helpful in understanding how we can reform the grant review process.

 

The results of this study are sobering because they remind us of how bad we are at predicting the future impact of research when we review grant applications. The other important take-home message is that we are currently losing out on quite a bit of important research because the NIH does not receive adequate funding. Back in the years 2001-2008, it was still possible to receive grant funding for grants in Category 3 (percentile ranking 20.0 – 41.8%). However, the NIH budget has remained more or less flat or even suffered major cuts (for example during the sequester) despite the fact that the cost of biomedical research continues to rise and many more investigators are now submitting grant applications to sustain their research laboratories. In the current funding environment, the majority of the Category 3 grants would not be funded despite the fact that they were just as productive as Category 1 grants. By maintaining the current low level of NIH funding, many laboratories will not receive the critical funding they need to conduct cutting edge biomedical research, some of which could have far greater impact than the research conducted by researchers receiving high scores.

 

Going forward, we need to devise new ways of assessing the quality of research grants to identify the most meritorious grant applications, but we also need to recognize that the NIH is in dire need of a major increase in its annual budget.

ResearchBlogging.org
Narasimhan Danthi, Colin O Wu, Peibei Shi, & Michael S Lauer (2014). Percentile Ranking and Citation Impact of a Large Cohort of NHLBI-Funded Cardiovascular R01 Grants Circulation Research