ARISE and Invest in New Talent

It’s a small pamphlet – just 55 pages long – but the AmericanAcademy of Arts and Sciences’ new reports tackles some weighty subjects: how to keep students flowing into the science pipeline and how to reward early-career scientists so that they don’t all feel obligated to study safe topics, but can justify pursuing “high-risk, high-reward research.”

It’s something you’ll read more about in the July 5 Science News, which offers a commentary by Nobel laureate Thomas R. Cech. He chaired the team that put together the new report: ARISE – for Advancing Research in Science and Education.

For those of you who didn’t receive a copy of this report in today’s mail (as I did), you can get the skinny by requesting a hard copy of the report from the Cambridge, Mass.-based AAAS (not to be confused with the American Association for the Advancement of Science), or go to its website and download a digital version.

As with most reports on science and research productivity, there is the obligatory preamble about how dire things are. This report, for instance, points to several issues of big concern:

— the odds of a scientist successfully beginning a career in academia “seem to be diminishing even as the U.S. needs for fresh ideas that can advance the nation’s leadership and its prosperity in a more competitive world are growing.” Last year, for instance, the funding rate for first-time grant applicants seeking National Institutes of Health funding was 18.5 percent. Among established investigators, it was 26 percent.

— it takes substantially longer now for a researcher to get his or her first federal grant – and even to get a relatively secure faculty position. For instance, the average age of a first-time principal investigator receiving funding from NIH is 42. That’s five years older than in 1980. The average age of PI’s receiving NIH grants is nearly 51 years old, versus 39 a quarter-century earlier. And the average age of a first-time assistant professor at the nation’s med schools is nearly 38, verses 34 in 1980.

— among young researchers applying for National Science Foundation grants, 18 percent get their first within three years of receiving their doctorate. Sixteen years earlier, the rate was 30 percent. More troubling, the new report notes, “One-half of new investigators never again receive NSF funding after their initial award.”

— since salaries or retention of academic scientists may hinge on their success in obtaining grants, increasing numbers of them have been submitting proposals for research that seems “safe”, the report finds. These projects are more likely to be funded. Unfortunately, the report adds, this approach is not likely to develop data that it terms “transformative,” that is research “with the potential to generate deep changes in concepts, to produce new tools or instrumentation that will allow the entire community to extend its reach, to create a new subfield, or to bring together different fields to make discoveries that would otherwise be impossible.”

This is hardly the first report to offer these observations. Nor is it the first to suggest that more money should go into funding potentially high-risk programs, but ones with the potential to also offer boffo payoffs. What does make this report a bit different is the extremely high profile participants who contributed and the equally stellar panel of reviewers who gave it very high marks.

In the end, however, their assessments won’t make a bit of difference if their message falls on deaf ears. Or, perhaps not deaf ears, just ones that refuse to put their agency’s money where their mouths are.

People complain about shelling out $45 to $90 to fill up their gas tanks, yet do it anyway. And often to take very unnecessary trips – like to buy a quart of ice cream or to go to a soccer game that the next door neighbor is also attending (so they could/should have been carpooling). If we can waste money for such luxuries, why not invest money for what’s not a luxury at all: the economic future of our nation?

One suggestion for Cech and his committee members: Perhaps putting a dollar value on the returns these investments can make – and have made in the past – would make their arguments for justifying more financial pain a bit more compelling to the public if not the penny pinchers in Uncle Sam’s Office of Management and Budget.

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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