Thursday, May 10, 2007

Rewarding Failure

Yesterday I blogged on Governor Deval Patrick's $1B biotech proposal and suggested that perhaps the money should be spent on something other than grants. Today I'll offer a modest suggestion on how to run the grant competitions.

Give it to the losers.

Which losers? Failed grant applications for NIH grants, that's who.

Of course, not just any failed grant should be submitted -- only the best will make it. This isn't an attempt to simply have a consolation prize, but rather to address the oft lamented failing of grant competitions, the fact that truly novel & innovative research is often rejected.

My process, if implemented, would attempt to be very efficient with researchers' time. The grant proposal would be resubmitted, with the prior reviewers comments, with a short description of what parts of the original proposal would be attempted under the new grant. No rewriting allowed.

Of course, not just any failed grant would be eligible. Obviously since this would be a state program the researcher must be Massachusetts based; such parochialism is foolish but politically necessary. New England could probably compete better with California if the various states worked together, but instead you see the mayor of Boston threatening to sue a New Hampshire airport for putting Boston in its name. Rhode Island has an active effort to poach biotech companies from Massachusetts, but their most heralded catch (Alpha-Beta) had the bad manners to go bust after moving.

Furthermore, not all failures need apply. The goal is to find the interesting rejections, the ones bounced because the grant reviewers lacked sufficient imagination. Not the grants that are 90% likely to succeed, but the proposals with a 10% chance of success -- but that potential success would be spectacular. Or, proposals where a scientist successful in one sub-specialty is attempting something in a very different one -- precisely the type of cross-pollination which leads to radically new thinking. Of course, the proposals would need to address important topics -- no stamp collecting expeditions, no routine cloning studies or genome sequencing.

High risk, high reward -- that's the requirement. Most of these won't produce direct results, though they will help train new scientists. But if a few go big, then everyone benefits -- and perhaps some of the next Amgen or Google will be based in Massachusetts.


Anonymous said...

I think it's a great idea. Especially since not all applications are rejected on a lack of merit.

utenzi said...

Great idea. Funding innovation can be an uphill battle--it'd be nice if there was another source of funds, even if it's only one state so far.