Action Potential

What to do with your unfunded proposals – place them in a centralized repository?

I would say no. Grant proposals are a precious commodity, especially in this day and age of reduced funding and evaporating money. However, in a recent Nature correspondence, Dr. Noam Harel describes his vision for a centralized grant repository, ideally open to the public, where researchers could place their best ideas, allowing various funding agencies to discover the plans most-suited to their respective agendas. Dr. Harel likens this potential web manifestation to something like eBay, Facebook or Google, but for scientists and funding agencies. A more apt analogy might be, with both sides searching for their ideal match, and a long-term relationship (perhaps I am now making it sound more like…).

When it comes to the integration of scientific communication and technology, I am extremely optimistic, and although I don’t reject Dr. Harel’s idea entirely, I just don’t see it taking off in its presently-proposed form.

Grant writing is one of the most time-consuming and challenging parts of an academic scientist’s life. S/he knows what needs to be done and how to produce a cool result, but translating these actions into words that the evil, intimidating and blood-thirsty study section will find appealing takes patience and care, taking much precious time away from bench work. This leads to my #1 reason why this sort of repository would not work: there is simply too much competition out there to risk losing essential intellectual capital.

Sure, I bemoaned the lack of unpublished data being presented at meetings in this blog before, but I draw a distinction here. Presenting unpublished data ready for public consumption is still a vastly safer endeavor than publicly revealing one’s approaches for tackling an interesting problem or creating new research tools. In addition, there are countless stories in science describing how one particular experimental strategy looked odd or downright foolish, at least until it produced a fantastic result. It is always exciting to reveal one’s seemingly foolish strategy once it has been successful, but until then, most people would rather pursue their hair-brained ideas by themselves. Come on, how many of you out there didn’t have a “secret project” that you never told your PI about, at least not until after it worked? Sometimes, we don’t want public criticism when we are in brainstorming mode, begrudgingly granting an exception to our study section colleagues.

Guarding potentially wacky experimental escapades is similar to the secretive nature that soon-to-be parents adopt regarding their selected baby names. They are not going to tell you the names until after the birth of the child because, frankly, they don’t want your feedback. After the birth certificate has already been filed, you, being the politically-correct individual that you are, will oblige them by complementing on their selection, since it is obviously too late to change anything. I feel the same concept applies to research that yields positive results. I am not suggesting that scientists shouldn’t or don’t discuss their potential experiments with others, but bouncing ideas off of trusted lab mates and posting them in a public repository are very different beasts. I simply feel that scientists are far from reaching the comfort level required to lay bare their most intimate experimental designs to the general public without first fully testing them to see if they work.

Hindsight is always 20/20. Most of the time, reviewer comments, whether on a publication or an RO1 proposal, are fairly constructive and can improve a paper or grant. After receiving feedback from a small group of peers (the study-section included), the grant writer will likely adopt certain suggestions, and modify other portions of the grant. This makes the proposal a better document and more likely to be funded by the agency represented by the original reviewers, or perhaps by another funding organization, if the author decides to try his/her luck elsewhere. Since any astute reviewer would likely detect the same major flaws, it would serve the author well NOT to leave the grant in a repository, but to instead modify and revise it for the next assessment. What advantage is it to the researcher, or to another funding agency, to have a sub-par grant evaluated again, using up precious time and reviewing resources? Of course, the public repository could be made so that new versions of the grant could be uploaded, appending the older version, but in the interim as the author is revising the grant (which can take months), the weaker version would be sitting there possibly turning off potential agencies (who may not bother to even look at a revision if they found the original version unsuitable) or causing confusion if the authors decide to move in a different scientific direction, with the revised proposal scarcely resembling its parent.

Currently, this grant repository does not exist, but could pre-print servers, like Nature Precedings, act in its place? After all, although they are currently not posting user-submitted research proposals, Precedings has listed some open science proposals. There may even be some interest in this submission category, as indicated by a recent blog post. Do I think that this is a good use of Nature Precedings? The answer is no. A preprint server and grant repository are separate entities and should remain as such. Mixing proposals and non-peer-reviewed research would not benefit the community and could potentially cause confusion regarding the mission of the preprint server. I think that the editors of Precedings are following the right course by limiting the submissions to data and completed experiments. Which means that the preliminary data in grants would be perfectly appropriate to submit, but let’s leave out the “Aims” sections.

I mentioned at the beginning of this post that I didn’t entirely reject Dr. Harel’s idea. The mixing and matching of proposals and agencies, akin to my reference, is not a bad one and could work. It is often hard for scientists to keep up with all of the new private foundations and charitable entities willing to provide millions of dollars to push progress in their favorite research area. But perhaps I could limit the scope of Dr. Harel’s proposal and suggest that any centralized repository would provide a simple one-page form allowing a laboratory to briefly detail their interests and loosely describe their plans, providing just enough information for the funding agency to “invite” the full proposal, if appropriate, while protecting the ideas of the scientist from general public exposure. These characteristics could potentially promote increased participation by those writing the proposals. With application requests and applications in the same place, it would only be a matter of time before the two found one another. This “limited scope” model of the repository would also still provide a means to preserve Dr. Harel’s other good ideas of encouraging joint-funding (if two agencies are both interested in the same project), or inspiring collaborative projects between labs seeking to examine the same questions.

I guess I’ll get to work pitching my twist on this idea to the people controlling the money dedicated to special projects here at NPG and see if we can get “Nature Grant Matchmaker” off the ground…


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    Noam Y. Harel said:

    Thank you Noah for your thoughtful comments. I was just alerted to your post today. I agree with some of your points, but want to debate you on a couple of others. First, the agreements:

    I like your suggestion for a one-page overview format, where granting agencies could then solicit full applications directly from potential matches.

    You also make a good point that an agency could conceivably get ‘turned off’ to a grant proposal between the original and revised submission. Perhaps the one-page overview format would cut down on this possibility…

    As for the ‘risk of losing precious intellectual capital’, the counter-argument is that the CPR could be just as private as any current grant submission process already is – granting agencies could be asked to commit to a privacy policy before being allowed to peruse the database.

    Secondly, I contend that the tendency of many study sections to avoid ‘hair-brained’ ideas would be more rapidly overcome through the CPR – by exposing proposals to a wider selection of agencies, ‘hair-brained’ ideas would have a greater chance of earning funding from some of the more progressive, smaller agencies participating in CPR. Once more of these ideas pay off with results/publications, the larger granting agencies would be more likely to feel compelled to take chances themselves. Thus, the CPR could act as an agent for pushing the envelope in science.

    Though it’s limited to one agency and one topic, the Gotham Prize Foundation sets the role model for CPR – yes, submissions are public. Yes, this allows others in the research community to criticize, collaborate, and even compete. But we must not lose sight of the indisputable fact that results and treatments will be produced more quickly when more scientists trade ideas rather than hoard them secretly. Eventually, the ‘publish or perish’ system will evolve to include credit for online posting/collaboration as well…

    Finally, partly for the ease of centralizing comments, and partly for the hope of directing traffic to my site, it would be an honor if you would be willing to post your comments directly onto my Wikispaces site – anyone is free to join, as long as they provide their name first.

    Thanks! Noam