A Statement of Principles
We need good science in the US. Good science helps us understand the universe and use this knowledge to push the boundaries of what is possible to achieve. Since the government spends many billions of dollars to support science, we need that funding system to work well.
What would a good science funding system look like?
- Good science funding would be open-minded and willing to consider new evidence and theories, even if a new direction goes against the current consensus. Indeed, many discoveries that are now considered breakthroughs were widely unpopular at the time.
- Good science funding would focus centrally on improving the production of scientific knowledge. Other goals (such as regional economic development) would be recognized as distinct and of lesser importance.
- Good science funding would work very hard to avoid social desirability bias. What is effective may be quite distinct from what we would like to be effective.
- Good science funding would incentivize scientists to care deeply about being right. The replicability crisis can be viewed as a paucity of such incentives in many domains. Similarly, good science funding would incentivize scientists to share findings and data freely and quickly. This allows other scientists to challenge and/or build on each other’s results, greatly accelerating progress.
- Good science funding would recognize a spectrum, from science that is highly goal-oriented (such as clinical trials), to science that is open to serendipity and exploration without any practical goal.
- Fundamental research, driven simply by an urge to understand the natural world, can be misconstrued as useless. But scientific breakthroughs can often be traced back to one or more exploratory findings whose importance could never have been foreseen at the time.
- Good science funding would provide stable funding for infrastructure like tools, technologies, and software, as well as compensation and career advancement for staff scientists and statisticians.
- Good science funders would be responsive to new developments and would consistently rethink their structure and practices, rather than being tied to decades-old ideas and assumptions.
- Good science funding would impose minimal administrative burdens, so as to give scientists sufficient time to focus on their work.
While there are many current programs at NIH and NSF that support good science, our funding system could do more.
- Federally-sponsored surveys have found that 42-45% of time that scientists spend on federally-funded research is taken up by administration, which includes progress reports, compliance, revenue and budgeting, and much more. Worse, that figure does not include writing proposals, serving on study sections or institutional compliance committees, or the administrative tasks performed by people other than principal investigators.
- Scientific publications rarely share enough data or information about methods that anyone could reuse the work and build upon it. Federal funders could incentivize such practices.
- We need more career paths and funding opportunities for people who produce tools, technology, or software, or who work as staff scientists or statistical consultants.
- Funding could be more streamlined and responsive to new discoveries, new theories/ideas, and new developments (such as a worldwide pandemic).
- Many scientists report that the best way to get NIH funding is to promise guaranteed success on a topic that is currently popular, sometimes by completing much of the work beforehand and then just extending it a little further. It is too difficult to get NIH funding for a new idea that isn’t a guaranteed success, never mind wide-ranging exploration of basic science questions that might pay off only after decades in ways that can’t be predicted.
- The funding at NIH is skewed towards older people (even those eligible for retirement), while the proportion of grants going to younger people in their prime has fallen over ten-fold since 1980. Virtually everyone agrees that funding should be more evenly distributed so as to reward good ideas and encourage innovation.
- Even though the experimental method is central to medicine, biology, and many other disciplines, large funding agencies rarely test out different funding models and rigorously evaluate them. Instead, they standardize science funding mechanisms and hence reduce the structural diversity of the ecosystem.
The US science funding system needs to rethink how it works. Funders should continually innovate in funding models, should avoid the homogenizing effects of implementing any single dominant methodology, and should experiment with different ways of enabling good science — science that is innovative, rigorous, and more supportive of exploration and new ideas.
Please email firstname.lastname@example.org to be added as a signatory.
Signatories (alphabetical by last name)
Chancellor’s Leadership Chair in Biochemistry and Biophysics for Science and Education, UCSF; former Editor-in-Chief of Science and President of the National Academy of Sciences
International Programs Professor of Management, MIT
Donald A. Berry
Professor, Department of Biostatistics, University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center
Professor of Pharmacology Emeritus, University of California San Francisco
Philip E. Bourne
Dean of the School of Data Science, University of Virginia
Former Associate Director for Data Science, NIH (2014-2017)
Professor, Arizona State University
CEO, Federation of American Scientists
Formerly Assistant Director for Innovation Policy, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy
Holbert L. Harris Chair of Economics and Chairman of Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor; Former Dean of Harvard Medical School
Leigh A. Frame
Director, Integrative Medicine, George Washington School of Medicine & Health Sciences
Professor of Sociology, Stanford University
Professor of Biostatistics, Vanderbilt University
Randolph W. Hall
Deans Professor, Epstein Dept. of Industrial and Systems Engineering; Former Vice President of Research, University of Southern California
President, Social Science Research Council
Professor of Politics, and Director of Public Safety Lab, New York University
MRC Programme Leader and Deputy Director, MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit
Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, University of Cambridge
Chief Innovation Officer, Schmidt Futures
Former Deputy Director, Office of Science and Technology Policy
Vilas Professor of Biochemistry, University of Wisconsin-Madison
John Franklin Enders Harvard University Professor, and Professor of Systems Biology
Harvard Medical School
Harold H. Hines, Jr. Professor of Medicine and Professor in the Institute for Social and Policy Studies
Director, Center for Outcomes Research and Evaluation, Yale University
David H. Koch Institute Professor, MIT
Director, Koobi Fora Research Project, Kenya
Research Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Stony Brook
Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of Washington
David S. Ludwig
Professor, Harvard Medical School and Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health; Physician & Researcher, Boston Children’s Hospital
Director, Centre for Population Genomics; Garvan Institute of Medical Research and Murdoch Children’s Research Institute
Rebecca A. Maynard
University Trustee Chair Professor Emeritus, University of Pennsylvania
Sterling Professor, Yale University School of Medicine; Howard Hughes Medical Institute
James D. Miller
Professor of Economics, Smith College
Assistant Professor, Yale School of Medicine
Director, Good Pharma Scorecard Initiative
Oxfam Professor of Environmental and Resource Economics; Faculty Director of the Center for Effective Global Action; University of California, Berkeley
Richard Nakamura, Ph.D., retired
Former Director of Center for Scientific Review, NIH
Former Scientific Director, NIMH
Former Deputy Director, NIMH
Co-director, Gene Delivery Technology Core, Massachusetts General Hospital
Executive Director, Center for Open Science
Professor, Department of Psychology, University of Virginia
James L. Olds
University Professor of Neuroscience and Public Policy, George Mason University; Former Assistant Director of NSF Directorate for Biological Sciences
Semmes Foundation Distinguished University Chair in Neurobiology, University of Texas at San Antonio
Professor of Psychology and Associate Director of Stanford Data Science
Associate Professor, RNA Bioscience Initiative | Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Genetics, University of Colorado School of Medicine
Professor of Medicine and Public Health, Yale University
Sterling Professor of Cell Biology, Yale University; Chairman of the Dept. of Cell Biology, Yale School of Medicine; Nobel Laureate (2013)
Senior Advisor on Open Access, Harvard Library, Harvard University
Dr. Michael P. Taylor
Research Associate, Department of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol
Professor, Department of Cognitive Sciences, University of California, Irvine
Senior Investigator, Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute, University of Toronto
Ernest W. Hahn Professor, Departments of Molecular Medicine and Neurobiology, Scripps Research Institute
Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, Duke University