Why is it so hard to reform scientific research?

In a refreshing article, an American scientist proposes a series of changes to improve the functioning of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), one of the leading scientific research institutions in the US. Despite the differences in the organization of science in the US and Europe, it is interesting to note the similarity in the criticisms of how research works on both sides of the Atlantic. The author highlights several fundamental problems.

In the first place, the -systematic- promises of research purporting to cure neurological and psychiatric diseases end up deceiving no one. It is in the air of the time and even when it is is superficial, the authors exaggerate the possible fall-out. Indeed, today, to be funded, we must pretend to propose healing paths in works that have little to do with these goals. Articles, like grant applications, are largely organized around the idea that applied research will solve these scourges. These preferences lead to works that have neither concept nor approach that can reasonably claim to lead to significant advances in new treatments.

Secondly, scientists -even young ones- spend most of their time looking for funding for their research – the late André Brahic said, barely exaggerating that “half of the researchers spend their time writing articles that the other half spend their time evaluating. ” Hence a waste of time and resources and especially little time to think and innovate. The result is that in the US, even more than in Europe, lots of teams do pretty much the same thing because it’s fashionable and trendy. Hence the importance of doing “bottom up” works and not the other way around, by getting rid of the shackles of fashions – at the moment genetics, big data and mathematical models – and by favoring an approach combining the understanding of the normal fnctionning with the one of the pathological one. Making “big plans” like Sarkozy’s Alzheimer is not going in the right direction because it involves injecting significant resources into a community that will use this avalanche of money to do what has already been done so far without taking any risk. Finally, the author points out the importance of relying on people, not projects. When the ERC – the European Excellence – asks to follow a funded project to the letter and to find what was expected, the approach is exactly what one should not do. In this respect, with the ANR, we are doing much better – with evaluations that are beyond our comprehension and funding that will allow us to survive. Nuggets are in the crossroads and not on the highways. The author proposes that researchers with a proven track record projects of a few lines saying something like this: “I discovered X / Y, and wish to work in this global direction, I’m not sure that it will succeed but in the next five years with these means, I will try to work in directions that have been little discussed and inflect my research in this direction. Imagine what a good researcher who changes direction can do with this degree of freedom! Ultimately, as in biotechnology companies, if some of these researchers make some discoveries, they will have largely offset the investment. Unfortunately, politics that have a policy horizon of a few years often fail to capture the time of research that is long and winding. And this problem knows no boundaries.

Michael Rosbash, Five suggestions for substantial NIH reforms. Elife 2017

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