No New Einsteins To Emerge If Science Funding Snubs Curiosity
Frank LaBella, 8 Aug 17

The manuscript of ‘Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’ shows the words ‘does this apple fall?’ Newton’s curiosity about the falling piece of fruit helped him develop the theory of gravity. (AP Photo/Lucy Young)

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.

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