Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Exploratory Research

Early in my career, I had an "exploratory" grant that, although not large in $$, turned out to have an immense impact on my career because it allowed me to start a new project involving completely new research. I don't think I would have been funded by a standard grant for this research. I had no track record in this type of research, and would likely have been sliced and diced in review. A kind and optimistic program officer, however, gave me a chance.

I later went on to get standard grants for related research, published ~ 20 papers on the original study and research that branched off from it, and am now well established in this field.

Although that exploratory grant was successful, I have not sought to obtain other such grants. Lately, though, I have been thinking about making another attempt. Exploratory grants can be extremely important for early-career researchers, but can also be important for mid-career researchers who want to "explore" something new or a bit risky; i.e., research that may involve dangerous ideas.

NSF has long had programs for funding exploratory research. In its latest incarnation, one program has the annoying name EAGER, as in EArly-concept Grants for Exploratory Research. I think NSF's acronym-makers maybe should have kept working on that one.

EAGER grants are a way to fund exploratory research that is of course transformative (as are all NSF-funded projects) but that also could be designated as "high risk". The concept of "high risk" is still a bit murky to me, but NSF includes these items as possible elements of "high risk - high payoff" research:

- radically different approaches
- new expertise
- novel disciplinary or interdisciplinary perspectives

All of the items in this list could be appropriate for a standard proposal, but EAGER-funded research must be of the sort that would not be appropriate for a standard proposal.

It may well be, then, that "high risk" actually means "high risk of rejection by standard review processes". This is a very real risk for some research (and/or some PIs), so it is important that NSF has these programs, not because they circumvent peer- and panel-review, but because there should be a mechanism by which program officers can identify and fund intriguing ideas.

So why I am I contemplating "exploratory" funding possibilities now? An idea that some colleagues and I are working on would be rejected in a typical peer-review process; we know this for a fact. So maybe it shouldn't be funded for the various reasons that the reviewers mentioned? Maybe. Or maybe, as I prefer to believe, the reviewers were short-sighted.

I do not envy program officers who have to sort out things like this. Is this person proposing a crazy idea that shouldn't be funded or is it in fact a visionary approach involving awesomely transformative research?

I don't know, but I hope I get the chance to find out.


Anonymous said...

In my NIH funded RO1 world, we theoretically are encouraged to value "innovative' research (it is one of the categories that now gets a separate score), and we also have the (much abused and mis-construed) R21 mechanism to fund exploratory high-risk, high payoff work. However, in my experience, in reality we create most new areas of research by piggy-backing on distantly related projects. Luckily, most NIH reviewers are OK with papers appearing on a progress report that go in new directions, as long as one can make the case that you at least started with some vague connection to the original aims. However, outside biomedical research, you may be talking about branching out into such different areas that this would not be feasible.

Mark P

Pagan Topologist said...

I would have thought "high risk" meant high risk of complete failure. In other words, high risk that nothing publishable will result at all.

But then, I have recently learned that even failures can be published in some fields (not in mine) since they warn others not to try what does not work.

Ms.PhD said...

good luck.

all of my ideas are dangerous. but i'm not eligible to be EAGER (at least not yet?).

John Vidale said...

While I'm in favor of exciting proposals and am currently collaborating on an EAGER grant, I have to say that, aside from rapid evaluation, the funding process is less sensible than the regular process.

EAGER grants only get reviewed within NSF, so the pool of expertise pondering the merits is LESS broad than usual. The criteria of having to interact with NSF officers to ascertain eligibility invites disproportionate use by well-connected insiders. The upper limit of $300K and two years is not so different than most other proposals.

In contrast to people's perceptions when their own proposals are turned down, I've generally observed that breadth, innovation, and daring HELP proposals stand out in the rat race for funding.

Also, funding internal to universities is often available for seed money, it seems a waste to me for NSF to spend its limited manpower doling out little short-term grants.

AsstFemaleProf said...

Last week I had a young investigator proposal (not NSF obviously) rejected, not because the concept wasn't sound, not because the idea wasn't "innovative" (note use of buzz word), but because I had two typos. Yes - two typos. The reviewer actually said that the proposal would have been "fundable" if the proposer had re-read and fixed the two typos. Um, what?

Anonymous said...

Sometimes PIs get a call asking them to submit an exploratory research proposal because NSF wants to fund the work but the panel didn't. I know of 2 cases, both young investigators.

EliRabett said...

Asst: Have you called the Program Officer? Do so. Don't be confrontational but just ask that if it was not for that odd comment, would the grant have been funded, and if so, why not fund it (they have some additional money now from the stimulus package). Be polite but don't accept nonsense.

Now if your average mark was good, or even good-very good, the grant was not fundable

Anonymous said...

There is a complete disconnect between how science really progresses and the pretty logic the NIH and NSF grant reviewing likes to fund. A huge number of major discoveries were achieved by chance. Good scientists noticing something anomalous during their work. Society should make sure there are funds for projects that are good methodologically, even if they seem like "fishing expeditions". Fishing expeditions are the main reason of progress.

Anonymous said...

Forgive me, but I don't believe you.