No New Einsteins to Emerge If Science Funding Snubs Curiosity

By LaBella, Frank; Emeritus, Professor et al. | The Canadian Press, August 4, 2017 | Go to article overview

No New Einsteins to Emerge If Science Funding Snubs Curiosity


LaBella, Frank, Emeritus, Professor, Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics, Manitoba, University of, The Canadian Press


No new Einsteins to emerge if science funding snubs curiosity

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This article was originally published on The Conversation, an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts. Disclosure information is available on the original site.

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Author: Frank LaBella, Professor Emeritus, Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics, University of Manitoba

All of the great scientific findings of the past emanated from the initiative of individuals spurred by unimpeded curiosity and determination.

Their research was financially supported by themselves or benefactors, and required only the availability of time for contemplation and conjecture.

For several years starting in 1958, when I began my research as an instructor in pharmacology, I had relatively free rein to follow my instincts, ideas and impulses. As a result, I delved into studies in many different areas: neuropharmacology, mechanisms of general anaesthesia, digitalis drugs, receptor pharmacology, endocrinology and aging, to mention a few.

What I consider some of my most significant research findings were the result of curiosity-based screening of chemical compounds in receptor-binding assays -- or the type of work often denigrated by grant application reviewers who earmark research dollars as "fishing expeditions."

Another fishing expedition embarked upon with my colleague, the late Carl Pinsky, also led to the development of a patented electronic sensor, which, in turn, led to the formation of a venture-capital funded company.

'The more papers, the better'

But over the years, a formidable bureaucracy has taken hold at universities as research "productivity" became an obsession. The aforementioned fishing expeditions were no longer an option. Grant success became dependent on publication -- the more papers, the better.

Therefore, academics and researchers had to focus on well-designed research proposals that could generate steady, reliable data output. Any diversions that might stimulate curiosity, generate enthusiasm or uncover new avenues of potentially ground-breaking exploration, but not directly related to funded projects, would only diminish productivity.

Commonly, two- or three-year funding for research is awarded by government granting agencies, or by one of many relevant foundations. Grant renewal relies on a satisfactory evaluation of the research achievement for that period.

This bureaucratic regimen unfortunately reveals a demoralizing ignorance of the efforts required to establish and maintain an efficiently functioning research facility. Furthermore, it subjects the researcher to repetitive, lengthy and enervating periods of grant application red tape.

Dissatisfaction with the ever-burgeoning research bureaucracy is global.

Scientists complain

A few years ago, Nobel Laureate Dr. Harold Varmus became head of the National Institutes of Health in the U.S. Upon his arrival, he was told by hordes of dissatisfied applicants for biomedical research grants that innovative proposals beyond the mainstream were uniformly rejected, year after year.

Varmus addressed this apparent deficiency with one fell swoop -- he mandated that innovation was to be one of the primary criteria by which research proposals were evaluated.

And in 2014, more than 30 leading scientists, including four Nobel Laureates, also wrote to Great Britain's The Telegraph to deplore the current system of granting funding for scientific research: "Sustained open-ended enquiries in controversial or unfashionable fields are virtually forbidden today and science is in serious danger of stagnating."

They added that the "major scientific discoveries of the 20th century would not have happened under today's funding rules."

Newton was an alchemist

Isaac Newton (1643-1727) is a perfect example. His contributions include the optics of colour, a brilliant neuro-anatomical concept of binocular vision, the laws of motion, universal gravitation, the general binomial theorem and the differential and the integral calculus. …

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