Science Corner: Out with the Old?

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The challenges of getting funding and being published are perennially of interest, particularly to emerging scholars. I imagine this examination of the current status quo will therefore be popular. But for an article on science funding, it seems to have a disconnect between its data and conclusions.

There are lots of claims that it is harder to get funding for innovative research under peer review than it used to be (without peer review? with a different style of review?), and the narrative of how that would work is compelling. But mostly they are backed up by anecdotes about innovative research that was funded in the past, which seems contrary to the point. Sure, there are assertions such research wouldn’t be funded today, but that’s really just begging the question.

The data that is presented mainly speaks to investigator age having increased over time. But the connection between age and innovation is fairly tenuous. The evidence is based on age-at-discovery-time of Nobel prize winners. But the Nobel Prize selects for young-at-the-time researchers in other ways. The prestige of the Nobel requires that the work it honors stands the test of time; predictions must be confirmed and results must be replicated. The rules of the Nobel require that the honoree be alive to receive it. Those two factors pretty much guarantee that recipients will be under 45 when they do the relevant work independent of how age affects creativity; have a breakthrough after 45 and you are less likely to live long enough to qualify for the Nobel. And as for the original observation about increasing investigator age, we need to consider that the US population in general is aging.

I mean, I’d like for all this to be true. I’d like to believe that my own struggles to get NIH funding are the result of systemic bias against me, that I am a young & brilliant innovator whose genius isn’t recognized in my own time. I’m just unconvinced that the situation now is materially different than it was in the past, and thus that my circumstances are unprecedented.

What do you make of the case presented for stifled creativity? Does your funding experience corroborate the conclusions? The criticisms mainly focus on NIH funding, but the anecdotes reveal many alternatives; what other funding sources have you found to be fruitful? Are they more or less open to innovation than the NIH?

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog.

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