Who chooses whether research is important enough to be funded?

This 2015 Chicago study of biomedical research published over a 30-year period found:

“Biomedical scientists pursue conservative research strategies exploring the local neighborhood of central, important molecules.

Although such strategies probably serve scientific careers, we show that they slow scientific advance, especially in mature fields, where more risk and less redundant experimentation would accelerate discovery of the network.”

“Importance” was determined as an objective variable in the study, then simultaneously emphasized and disavowed by the lead researcher in an interview:

“The trick is to find something really important, and not being attacked by thousands of other people around the globe.

One protein and all its connections is surely important, but what is the objective measure of importance?

You need to think about networks and interacting parts, not one protein.”

and in the study’s Discussion section:

“Efficient discovery of radically new knowledge in a mature field, including many areas of biomedicine, requires abandoning the current focus on important, nearby chemicals.”

A researcher who wasn’t involved in the study commented:

“Greater synthesis, and step-wise progress may sometimes be more important than disruptive innovation.”


Rationale that it was important for “scientific advance” to abandon studies in areas closely related to important chemicals disregarded researchers’ individual interests. It was implausible that the study’s recommendation to publish all research failures would be implemented without being forced, which would again disregard individual interests.

The researchers made recommendations as if these could be carried out by people who hypothetically acted independently of their personal histories and interests when making decisions important for “scientific advance.”

Who are these people? Just one example would suffice.

If these recommendations would be enforced by systems without people, who gets the funding to design and put such systems into place? Would scientists’ participation be voluntary, or essentially mandatory in order to work in covered areas?


There are many influences on which research proposal receives funding, of course. I didn’t see any coverage in the study or in the accompanying news articles of the influences discussed in How do we assess “importance” in our lives? An example from scientists’ research choices. That study was referenced, but only for its data distribution characteristics.

The current study assessed the importance of research choices as if each individual scientist had no motivating personal history. The researchers may have achieved actionable findings if the study’s design and methodology better incorporated the hypothesis that scientists’ career and personal choices were influenced by whether or not the work made them feel important.

http://www.pnas.org/content/112/47/14569.full “Choosing experiments to accelerate collective discovery”

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