13 May 2010

Original and transformative

Hollywood is looking for original ideas. Given a sufficiently liberal definition of “original,” that is.

“We are always looking for original ideas. As long as they are based on underlying material like a comic book or video game or novel.”

I thought of that attitude when I heard this interview with Craig Venter.

Governments are very risk-adverse in funding new programs. The genome is one of the best examples. ... The irony is people don’t want the government to take risks with their money because they can then consider it’s a bad investment. In fact they’re taking safe bets with the money and we’re not moving forward. So instead of being upset that some programs were funded that didn’t take us anywhere, they should be upset that most of the programs we’re funding have us crawling forward instead of leaping forward.

Many government funding agencies, particularly the National Science Foundation, make a big deal about wanting to fund “transformative” research. I can’t help but think that they want to fund transformative research in the same way Hollywood wants to make “original” movies.

People are risk averse. They don’t want to lose money. So they try to make safe bets by using some sort of proven material. For films, that means books or plays or games; for science, that means small incremental improvements that have gone through peer-review.

A lot of films are made outside Hollywood. There are lots of film festivals where people can show their stuff. In science, though, the number of options to get basic science done outside federal funding seem to be shrinking.

This is just one reason I’m so pleased to see BenchFly’s microgrants program off to a good start, with two projects funded in the first round.

Picture by jurvetson on Flickr, and used under a Creative Commons license.

3 comments:

Daniel Bassett said...

I also don't like how government will only fund research that they deem worthy. They have a grapple hold over scientific research which is the last thing that government should have.

Zen said...

By and large, though, the federal agencies adhere fairly strictly to peer review. So while they do set broad mandates, in a lot of ways they are often rather hands off.

Alan said...

Thanks for the generous mention Zen! There are a number of problems with our current funding agencies, and the lip service of truly wanting change is high on the list. As both you and Craig Ventor said, everyone is so risk-averse and afraid that their name will be associated with a failure that we've essentially created a system that will only fund the "safe" work. "Safe" could mean a consortium of big names, or a field that has already reached maturity, among other things.

To follow-up with your analogy, people are looking at what Warner Brothers is signing as an indication of what's "good". Of course, those movies all got their start in small film festivals.

I think truly transformative change happens at the fringes. While I would never presume to say our microgrant program is transformative, it was overwhelming to see such a positive response from the community. We (the researchers) will have to find creative solutions to the problems we're facing and hopefully it will "trickle up"...