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Researchers propose alternative way to allocate science funding

 :: Posted by American Biotechnologist on 01-13-2014

Researchers in the United States have suggested an alternative way to allocate science funding. The method, which is described in EMBO reports, depends on a collective distribution of funding by the scientific community, requires only a fraction of the costs associated with the traditional peer review of grant proposals and, according to the authors, may yield comparable or even better results.

“Peer review of scientific proposals and grants has served science very well for decades. However, there is a strong sense in the scientific community that things could be improved,” said Johan Bollen, professor and lead author of the study from the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University. “Our most productive researchers invest an increasing amount of time, energy, and effort into writing and reviewing research proposals, most of which do not get funded. That time could be spent performing the proposed research in the first place.” He added: “Our proposal does not just save time and money but also encourages innovation.”

The new approach is possible due to recent advances in mathematics and computer technologies. The system involves giving all scientists an annual, unconditional fixed amount of funding to conduct their research. All funded scientists are, however, obliged to donate a fixed percentage of all of the funding that they previously received to other researchers. As a result, the funding circulates through the community, converging on researchers that are expected to make the best use of it. “Our alternative funding system is inspired by the mathematical models used to search the internet for relevant information,” said Bollen. “The decentralized funding model uses the wisdom of the entire scientific community to determine a fair distribution of funding.”

The authors believe that this system can lead to sophisticated behavior at a global level. It would certainly liberate researchers from the time-consuming process of submitting and reviewing project proposals, but could also reduce the uncertainty associated with funding cycles, give researchers much greater flexibility, and allow the community to fund risky but high-reward projects that existing funding systems may overlook.

“You could think of it as a Google-inspired crowd-funding system that encourages all researchers to make autonomous, individual funding decisions towards people, not projects or proposals,” said Bollen. “All you need is a centralized web site where researchers could log-in, enter the names of the scientists they chose to donate to, and specify how much they each should receive.”

The authors emphasize that the system would require oversight to prevent misuse, such as conflicts of interests and collusion. Funding agencies may need to confidentially monitor the flow of funding and may even play a role in directing it. For example they can provide incentives to donate to specific large-scale research challenges that are deemed priorities but which the scientific community can overlook.

“The savings of financial and human resources could be used to identify new targets of funding, to support the translation of scientific results into products and jobs, and to help communicate advances in science and technology,” added Bollen. “This funding system may even have the side-effect of changing publication practices for the better: researchers will want to clearly communicate their vision and research goals to as wide an audience as possible.”

Awards from the National Science Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the National Institutes of Health supported the work.

From funding agencies to scientific agency: Collective allocation of science funding as an alternative to peer review
Johan Bollen, David Crandall, Damion Junk, Ying Ding, and Katy Börner

Read the paper:
doi: 10.1002/embr.201338068

Thank you to EMBO for contributing this story.

Nobel Prize Winners Address Brutal Cuts in Federal Funding

 :: Posted by American Biotechnologist on 12-13-2013

They are coming to New Orleans to talk science with their fellow members of the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) on Monday, December 16, but the ASCB winners of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Medicine, Randy Schekman, PhD, and James Rothman, PhD, are speaking out on controversial issues they believe threaten American science and American society.

On Saturday in Stockholm, Rothman of Yale University closed his Nobel lecture with a warning that “brutal cuts” in federal research funding are destroying American competitiveness in science. On Tuesday in an opinion column published in the British newspaper, The Guardian, Schekman of the University of California, Berkeley, said that the world’s three leading scientific journals—Cell, Nature, and Science—are warping science for their own commercial purposes. Calling them “luxury” journals, Schekman wrote, “These journals aggressively curate their brands, in ways more conducive to selling subscriptions than to stimulating the most important research.”

Longtime ASCB members, Schekman and Rothman won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discoveries of how molecules move through the cell in vesicles and fuse to target membranes in a process known as “trafficking.” Schekman who was ASCB President in 1999 and Rothman who has been an ASCB member since 1982 will share their joint prize of roughly $1.2 million US with Thomas Südhof of Stanford University for their work on the machinery regulating vesicles in the cell as they move along cytoskeletal roadways, delivering cargoes to different parts of the cell. This basic work was a huge boost for researchers studying conditions such as diabetes and neurodegeneration.

Both men are concerned that the work for which they won their Nobels would be much more difficult in the future because of an climate of budget cutbacks and branded scientific publications. Schekman has been particularly critical of “journal impact factors” or JIFs, a statistical measure of how often a journal is cited in other papers, as “a deeply flawed measure” that is damaging scientific integrity. JIFs have become the widely accepted measure for scientific hiring, advancement, and funding, Schekman wrote, despite their well-known flaws.

The JIF became a major issue at last year’s ASCB Annual Meeting when a group of scientists and journal editors drew up the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA), calling for scientists to turn their backs on JIFs and find new measures of individual research value. This week, just six months after the DORA petition was first posted publicly, the number of scientists and scholars including many from the social sciences and the humanities who have signed DORA passed the 10,000 signature mark. An additional 423 scientific and scholarly organizations have also signed. Schekman, a former president of the ASCB and an early DORA supporter, is expected to expand on the DORA premise in his address to the cell biologists on Monday night.

“When we first talked about the ideas that became DORA last year in San Francisco, none of us thought that it would explode like this,” said Stefano Bertuzzi, the Executive Director of the ASCB. “As cell biologists, we thought it was our issue but now the 10,000 plus signatures for DORA so far prove that JIFs are seen as serious threat in many fields of science and scholarship. This is not just egghead, ivory tower stuff. What comes out of our labs and our universities is the power that drives our future economy. Research will make or break our future health. DORA is not about footnotes. It’s about keeping research honest and vital.”

Bertuzzi continued, “The ASCB is delighted to have two of our own—Randy and Jim—coming from Stockholm to New Orleans to use their new fame to stand up for critical issues like budget cuts and DORA.”

In his Nobel lecture last Saturday, Rothman of Yale University pointed out that the science of biochemistry which undergirded his Nobel-winning research on how cells package and deliver vital secretions such as insulin was developed around the turn of the last century in Germany. The Nazis destroyed that scientific culture in a matter of years, driving many of the best biochemists to the U.S. where it took root and blossomed, Rothman said. It gave the US an unquestioned scientific leadership form World War II to recent. “Now that culture stands deeply threatened by brutal cuts in support for basic research,” Rothman said. “And it can go away.”

Both Schekman and Rothman are longtime members of the ASCB, the world’s largest society of cell science researchers whose basic discoveries have driven advances in modern medicine and pharmacology. They will address many of the 6,000 attendees at the ASCB Annual Meeting at a special Nobel session in the Great Hall of the New Orleans Morial Convention Center at 6:00 pm CST, on Monday night.

Majority of Americans believe another government shutdown likely in coming months

 :: Posted by American Biotechnologist on 12-03-2013

Nearly two-thirds (65%) of Americans say it’s likely there will be another government shutdown in the months ahead as Congress continues to debate deficit and budget issues, according to a new national public opinion poll commissioned by Research!America and the American Society of Hematology. This sentiment is shared across party affiliations: Democrats (66%), Republicans (65%) and Independents (65%). There is also consensus across party lines that government dysfunction has consequences. A majority of Americans (57%) say the shutdown in October caused significant harm to many government-funded programs including medical research, defense and education. Democrats (68%) and about half of Republicans (49%) and Independents (51%) agree.

On the topic of sequestration, a plurality (44%) says Congress must tackle tax and entitlement reform to reduce the deficit instead of continuing the 10 years of across-the-board cuts; another 16% say sequestration is not the right way to reduce the deficit. Less than a quarter (23%) believe the across-the-board cuts are a way of ensuring that many government programs share the pain, and 17% say they’re not sure. In general, 62% of Americans say they’re concerned about the long-term effects of sequestration on advances in health care such as the development of new drugs and other treatments.

“Our poll demonstrates uneasiness among many Americans about the ramifications of deep spending cuts to programs that are critical to our health and well-being,” said Mary Woolley, president and CEO of Research!America. “Americans want Congress to reach a budget deal that protects medical and health research, at least in part because of concern that our nation is at risk of losing our global leadership position in science and innovation.”

The poll shows nearly three-quarters (73%) of Americans doubt the U.S. will be the number one world leader in science and technology in 2020, a significant increase from the percentage that doubted U.S. leadership last year (59%). In addition, one-third of respondents believe China will surpass the U.S. in six years. Another 30% are not sure which country will lead in science in 2020. Many believe the federal government must increase investments in medical and health research now to ensure that the U.S. can compete globally (61%), and a vast majority (84%) think it’s important for the U.S. to lead in medical, health and scientific research.

The current level of federal spending for research to combat disease leaves many Americans on edge. Upon hearing the U.S. spends about 5 cents of each health dollar on research and development to prevent, cure and treat disease and disability, nearly half (49%) say it’s not enough. Where the additional funds would come from is another question. A plurality (43%) of Americans states its willingness to pay $1 per week more in taxes if the respondents were certain that all of the money would be spent on additional medical research, with 34% not willing and another 23% uncertain about additional taxes for research.

“By cutting federal funding for research supported by the National Institutes of Health and other agencies, we are literally putting lifesaving research on hold,” said Janis Abkowitz, MD, president of the American Society of Hematology, the world’s largest association of blood specialists. “As someone who has seen firsthand how scientific breakthroughs have led to better treatments for patients with blood diseases, it is encouraging to see that voters view medical research funding as a key issue when deciding who will get their vote.”

Looking ahead to the midterm elections, about two-thirds of respondents (66%) say it’s important for candidates running for office to assign a high priority to funding medical research. More than half (53%) do not believe elected officials in Washington are paying enough attention to combating the many deadly diseases that afflict Americans.

Among other findings:

  • 70% say basic scientific research that advances the frontiers of knowledge is necessary and should be supported by the federal government, even if it brings no immediate benefits.
  • Upon hearing the federal government spends approximately $100 per American per year on medical research on all diseases and disabilities, about half (46%) say that’s not enough.
  • 79% say it’s important that our nation supports research that focuses on improving how our health care system is functioning.
  • 75% of Americans say it’s important to invest in research for job creation and economic recovery.
  • 54% say the cost of health care is the single most important health issue facing the nation.
  • 51% say research to improve health is part of the solution to rising health care costs.
  • 75% say it’s important to conduct medical or health research to understand and eliminate health disparities.

The nationwide survey was conducted by Zogby Analytics for Research!America and the American Society of Hematology. The margin of error is +/-3.2 percentage points. To view the poll, visit: http://www.researchamerica.org/uploads/Nov13nationalpollwithASH.pdf

Thank you to Research!America for this story.

Guess Who Else Will be Hurt by Sequestration?

 :: Posted by American Biotechnologist on 11-19-2013

Elliott Negin, Director of News and Commentary for the Union of Concerned Scientists, recently wrote an article in the Huffinton Post warning of the dire financial impact that the recent government shutdown and almost-year-long sequester will have on industry and the private sector.

On many occasions we have discussed how recent government actions are harming academic science in the United States, but we have never discussed what consequences it may have on industry. In general, when one thinks about government funding, university labs and research institutes come to mind. That certainly makes sense as thoughts of the NIH shuttering their doors for several weeks is still fresh in our minds. However, as Negin writes, research and discovery in academia and government laboratories are often the catalyst for industry and commercialization. Take away government research and you will definitely harm the downstream commercial environment.

As Negin writes:

The sequester, and inconsistent funding by a fickle Congress is taking its toll on the public scientific enterprise

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What are your thoughts on this connection? Do you believe that poor government policy will have a significant impact on the commercial sector?

To read Negin’s commentary visit Don’t take federal science for granted.

One Month Left to Win $5,000 from FASEB

 :: Posted by American Biotechnologist on 10-30-2013

What a great initiative by FASEB. You can win $5,000 while helping science at the same time. Enter the contest today!