Caution: avoid falling in love with your idea

Recently, a colleague generously agreed to go over a presentation he had made at a leading summer course for graduate students and post docs in his field. It was a textbook example of what such lectures should do — presented an alternative idea concerning an important topic in the field, surveyed the experimental findings that called the “orthodox” theory into question, discussed new data, reviewed why the old and new data supported the “alternative” hypothesis, and then closed by pointing out why the alternative hypothesis could also be wrong. Beautiful. With the number of retracted publications due to fraud or misapplications of science on the rise it is important to remind young researchers that finding what is true is more important (and, of course, scientifically more interesting) than proving your idea right. Don’t fall in love with your idea – it makes it hard to admit that it’s wrong. Instead, fall in love with the search, with inquiry, with the process of finding out what is really going on. Funders, too, should take caution to heart. It is too easy to fall in love with your ideas, with your programs, with your goals — such that the truth gets altered to fit your preconceived reality. Better to be willing to always remember to ask yourself — what would it take to convince me that this program, this grant, this idea could be wrong? A dose of healthy skepticism keeps us all honest.

Lots of slosh but little slush?

A friend pointed out to me that increasingly every scientific idea, from the grand to the mundane to the trivial, now needs $1 million in grants or its just not worth doing. Most of these ideas, he claims, are $100K ideas at best. But pointing that out extinguishes interest. Whow can go to all the trouble? What is missing today is access to the small amounts of money needed to test an idea. And the culture has changed to one of “why be in for a penny when you can be in for a pound?” In the good ole days – when the total funding pie was alot smaller than it is today as was anyone’s individual slice of it – departments and laboratories always managed to have small amounts of slush funds that could be used to test the feasibility of a new idea. So, how can it be that with the millions of dollars being thrown at academic research right now there is no slush? My hypothesis is that the slush has become slosh. Labs are actually awash in cash but spending it like the proverbial drunken sailors. So little studies become big studies. New ideas become grand ideas. And like most big things – these projects become too big to fail. Requiring that more money be spent to salvage what’s already been wasted. And so we go. Maybe it is time to bring back smaller budgets, testable ideas, and the slush fund.

The same only different?

An astute friend recently sent me an email with the following announcement :
Please join the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in exploring open innovation approaches enabled by the new prize authority.
Crowdsourcing: The Art and Science of Open Innovation
My friend observed that the “prize” approach to stimulating innovating problem solving has been around for a long time and just keeps being re-invented with a new hype. I have always found prizes curious when it comes to problems requiring knowledge generation not just knowledge application because it is never clear how one finances the first component of the quest. What is interesting to me in the re-invention of prizes as “crowdsourcing” is the clever way typical NIH “throw more money at problems” approach is now combined with a “throw more people at problems” approach. I do think the more people you have working on problems can lead to new insights. It might also just add to more noise. In fact I always thought that was what the big pyramid of the scientific workforce was supposed to be doing — you capture alot of people at the bottom with all their ideas mixed in and jumbled up with all the noise – and then over time a gradual seiving begins such that only those with clever and original ideas persist.
At the moment – there seems to be a lot of clutching at straws among science funders hoping somehow if one grabs often enough the brass ring is bound to be in one of the handfuls of hay. This might be OK for private funders — after all we should be about experimentation and willingness to fail. The federal funders are responsible for maintaining the enterprise and when they go all silly and trendy — well the enterprise responds by getting all silly and trendy. Not good.

Doing good by staying put?

Recently I participated in a series of small meetings with prominent scientists. Over dinner the discussion turned to recent and upcoming travel. Summers in Aspen or Wyoming or Nova Scotia. Trips to Paris, Venice, Rome, Sienna, Melbourne, Singapore, Buenas Aires, Rio, … you get the picture. Sabbaticals here – field research there. For all of the complaining (the other most popular topic is the lack of funding!) the picture emerges once again of what a priviledged life academic scientists live. Non-scientists are often awed by the far reaching experiences researchers enjoy. Exciting work, bright colleagues, eager trainees, fascinating travel.
AND this got me thinking… so, even while much of this travel is supported by private funds such as meetings hosted by Foundations or disease organizations and some of the travel costs were born by companies or covered under consultancies rather than re-imbursement from research grants (although certainly research grants also cover travel -particularly to professional society meetings) – MUCH of the travel expenses are, in one way or another, still coming from the same pot as direct research funding. SO — what if all scientists agreed that they would travel less – say 50% – and divert the funds for meetings, workshops, conferences, lectures (these in particular can easily be replaced by electronic tools) back into the LAB research budget? We could accomplish several things with 1 stone:
1) less time away from home; 2) energy and water resources saved; 3) more money for research. Worth considering? And with the time saved – researchers could actually go on a proper vacation – but paid for with their own dime, like regular folk.

Calling all Davids — time to get your sling shots!

Despite the cliche of graduation not being the end but the beginning – the cliche is a truism for anyone who has spent a good deal of their adult life involved in academia. My years are still tied to the rhythm of the academic year. So June often seems like the “end” and September the “beginning.” And as I do every year – I have great plans to use the transition months of summer for ambitious projects. I hope use the months of July and August to read and educate myself about several new opportunities opening up in neurological disease research mainly because the failures accruing from the dogmatic directions have become undeniable. The predominant theories of neurodegenrative neurological disease research have been whittled away by a spate of recent findings such that the edifice may have finally become small enough to fail. And from the collapse comes opportunities for novelty and innovation. Good news for small funders – because it allows room for new ideas and smaller scale investments. When the status quo Goliath becomes a little unsteady on its feet, the Davids become emboldened. And philanthropy can provide the assistance needed to knock the giants off their feet. If we are brave.

A dangerous combination- arrogance and ignorance

Some members of the Council on Foundations must have thought it was amusing to “put Philanthropy on trial” at the annual CoF meeting. Instead they got caught up in their own cleverness. Unfortunately – the hung jury verdict (10 agreed philanthropy was guilty of mis-use) was misled both by the “prosecution” and the “defense” who seemed to have no true understanding of the deep roots of American Philanthropic traditions. Now a “foundation” or a “charity” or even a particular program can be evaluated as a good use of funds or not — BUT PHILANTHROPY as an institution? The mock-trial was silly. Unfortunately it was also dangerous. Diversity of opinion and decision making is the bedrock of philanthropy – and this country’s rightful distrust of centralized decision making. Philanthropy is social venture capital. Our tax code encourages philanthropy for a reason. Strategic philanthropy, as I have explained in this blog, is not the same as charitable giving. Strategic philanthropy is most effective when it 1) attempts to support the aquisition of new knowledge and its responsible application, 2) attempts to understand the root causes of problems, and 3) challenges common wisdom assumptions and tests alternative models. Philanthropy is a key contributor to scientific and medical research, education, the arts, and parks. Philanthropy is not ONLY AND NECESSARILY about providing support to the poor. At a time when many of our civic institutions are under attack because people are ignorant of their history, purpose, and design, smart people don’t play with fire. Only the arrogant and the ignorant light up what they can not control.

Long time no blog…

During the month of March I was travelling in 2 parts of Chile: the Atacama desert and Patagonia. The juxtaposition of going first north and then south from desert to a land rich in glacial streams and lakes, was remarkable. In both places the simple beauty of the landscape was inspiring, however, one strange thing is that although both places are fairly remote and difficult to reach – both were full of tourists herded from spot to spot by tour and sightseeing buses. It was actually difficult – at the ends of the earth – to be alone. You often had to try to find a way to look, a perspective, that isolated the scenery from the scenery-peepers. This was true, even is one was willing to hike some distance. Also odd, considering how many tourists there were – is that internet access was relatively poor. It felt off-kilter to be surrounded by people and yet disconnected. Probably akin to traveling to Niagra Falls or to the Grand Canyon before cell phones and video cameras. It reminded me that we now have to try to be in the moment with the people we are with – something that was unavoidable years ago.

The silly season is upon us

Spring is in the air – after a fairly rough winter the local temps have climbed into the 60sF and 70sF rather abruptly and yet immediately there were people in shorts and diners at outdoor cafes. Amazing. And it doesn’t matter if it gets cold again or even if it snows… winter is on its last legs. For many private funders another reliable harbinger of spring are proposal-application deadlines. In other posts I have mentioned a common trap for funders is becoming disappointed with expected outcomes partially due to the mismatch of those expectations with what was actually done (the design of programs and the scope of the grants). A similar trap can befall the application process – mismatching application guidelines with the funder’s funding priorities. A foundation may want to “change the direction of a field” and thinks it will accomplish that with a fellowship training program requiring the fellow to be at a top-ranked (read status quo) laboratory. SImilarly, funders will ask for “outside the box” ideas and then require a detailed research proposal as though novel ideas come wrapped in 3 linear specific aims and a to-the-penny detailed budget.

Researchers attempt to parse the guidelines and try to figure out how to make what it is that they do look like what it appears the funders want. Funders get cold feet when faced with novelty and go with the safer bet. And so the silly season wears on with everyone frustrated and stressed.

Setting policies

The interesting component of grantmaking, to me, is the what not the how. Too often Foundations, particularly Foundations supporting scientific research get caught up in the application process. How many pages? Should applications allow additional or appended information? Should we require the use of foundation-generated forms? What expenses should be allowed? I am not saying that process doesn’t matter. It is important, if a Foundation issues RFAs and solicits applications, that there are processes in place that have integrity and that there are principled ways of keeping as level a playing field as possible so that decisions to fund or not fund can be made. Still, most of the real work comes in developing a strong institutional compass concerning what it is that a Foundation will support and being able to articulate the choice of directions. Foundations supporting research know that they do not operate in a vacuum – and must continually evaluate how their values intersect with the norms and values of academic institutions. Too often I hear conversations lamenting the failure of Foundations to support some items Universities want research budgets to support without any accompanying discussion as to whether such expenses are a legitimate cost for research budgets. Similarly – the shifting of internal expenses to external sources of funding is really questioned on a fundamental level. Rather, Foundations are often asked to be responsive to the needs or perceived needs of University administrators. For small funders, the shifting of burdens is not a zero sum game. Every decision to fund is also a decision not to fund. Such decisions should rest on principles.

Scientific uncertainty and the quest for explanations

Recently there has been a spate of editorials discussing the incontrovertible eveidence that the MMR vaccine does not cause autism. An example can be found in today’s Wall Street Journal:

In this blog and in other places I have written in one way or another about the negative resuts of public discussion and policy making running ahead of the science the discussions and policy making are supposedly based on. Cognitively, we do not deal with uncertainty very well – the anecdotes about our perceptions of risk and on human decision-making are legion. The most familiar example is the number of people who will not risk flying but drive thousands of miles on the highway.
So even thought the science supporting the link behind MMR vaccine and autism was weak right from the beginning – the findings preyed on the fears and the uncertainties of parents who had to make a decision. And it offered an fairly easy to understand explanation to parents suffering with trying to understand how a terrible disease could be afflicting a child. The MMR provided an external, readily identified enemy to blame. Perhaps the worst aspect of all of this is that good data AFTER THE FACT can rarely dislodge doubt. Energy, resources, and skill have been deflected from the real problem to a fake one. There is lots of balme to share. As private funders, and disease advocates – it is time for us to take a long look in the mirror and ask ourselves what we could do differently next time.