In defense of the fishing expedition

February 12, 2009 at 3:37 am Leave a comment

When coming back from a conference recently, I had an interesting conversation with my PI about grantsmanship and in particular on why on earth do federal funding agencies in the US still refuse to fund exploratory science, or, in grantsmanship parlance, so called “fishing expeditions”. While almost every single paper in C/N/S level journals in biomedical sciences has some kind of microarray analysis in it, the decision-makers at NIH still fail to acknowledge the importance of such studies.

Female Science Professor blogged about her personal experience on the subject a while ago, but her story is one that almost every applicant for an NIH grant has come across. The reviewers of grants are explicitly instructed to frown upon any non-hypothesis-driven research. Now, the applicant has all these amazingly useful exploratory tools, such as microarrays, 2D gel/mass spec, genomic sequencing, that allow them to really get to the bottom of the phenomena that they are seeing, but they are not allowed to apply for federal funding to use these techniques. Of course many of them just lie about how much money they will need for their hypothesis-driven research and then use the leftover to do exploratory stuff, but I don’t really see why we should support this fictional system where everyone is saying that they will do one thing and then do something different altogether after they get the money.

One way to solve this problem would be to create a special type of award for studies explicitly exploratory in nature, with aims such as “To determine, by means of DNA microarray analysis, the mechanism by which something or other promotes prostate cancer cell proliferation and inhibits apoptosis.” These awards would be relatively low budget and short term, and their evaluation would not be based on how much preliminary data there is or how likely they are to give positive results (most of these types of studies are pretty straightforward), but rather on how important the problem that they are addressing is, and how likely they are to generate interesting hypothesis-driven follow-up studies.

Other than this type of genome-wide/proteome-wide exploratory studies, there is one other type of research that is close to impossible to get funding on but nevertheless is bread and butter to virtually every scientist, and which contributes to a lot of hypothesis-driven research and a lot of publications in the long run. I am talking about “let’s put that shit on top of this shit and see what happens”-type of studies. They include very quick and dirty n=1 cell culture experiments, but also stuff like creating knockout mice, whose importance no one even barely acquainted with biomed research would dare question. Why not fund these studies as well, as part of a yet different funding mechanism with a different set of priorities?

The upshot of it all is that NIH should not stick to the same mechanisms of funding that were valid 30 years ago, but should instead follow the trends of real, ie. published research. Let’s put an end to the fiction that PIs put into their grant applications in order to avoid being accused of non-hypothesis-driven aims, a critique which even the reviewers don’t really believe in.

Entry filed under: Biomedical research, Conduct of science, Grantsmanship and biomedical writing. Tags: , , , , , , .

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