January 22, 2021

The Niche

Trusted stem cell blog & resources

Stem cell monopoly: do not pass go, do not collect $200,000

Great ideas are the foundation of science, but funding makes great ideas become realities and a monopoly on funding hurts science.

UPDATE: NIH data backs up our conclusions: overfunding wastes precious resources–give the money to smaller labs.

Stem Cell Monopoly
Stem Cell Monopoly

Arguably the key driver of the exciting progress in stem cell research is funding.

With the stakes so high in terms of helping patients through advancing stem cell research and the billions of dollars involved,  a very important question is whether the current model of funding stem cell research is ideal. Perhaps there are ways to “get more bang for the buck” in funding stem cell research.

The current paradigm of stem cell funding is a system of competition where scientists send in applications for funding, often in units of approximately $200,000/year over a 3-5 year period. This is an oversimplification, but it gives you the general idea.

The submitted applications are reviewed by groups of other scientists who give each application a score. In a general sense, the reviewers know that certain very good or bad scores mean an application will almost certainly be funded or not be funded. Then there is usually a range of scores that are in the grey zone.

Enormous stakes are riding on these scores and on which grants get funded. One could argue the entire field of stem cell research and regenerative medicine depends on this funding system. If the funding scores shift even in subtle ways, then the entire field will move in one direction or another.

So how do the reviewers decide on these critically important scores they give to in essence fund or not fund certain grants?

There are a number of criteria:

1) The investigator (who is the scientist? what is their track record in terms of getting funding in the past and publishing papers?)

2) Environment (what institution is the scientist at? what is the reputation and track record of that institution? what scientists are around the applicant that could be of help?)

3) Approach (is the science that they propose sound? will it work?)

4) Innovativeness (how novel is this?)

5) Impact (overall, how might this research change the field?)

Different funding agencies have different criteria, but generally these five are the important ones and the reviewers give scores in these kind of areas to each grant, ending up with an overall score that will determine funding.

In the current relatively difficult funding climate, the top 10% of applications are almost always funded. The next 10% below that have a reasonable chance.

One problem is that the current system is inherently biased to reward scientists who already have funding with more funding. It also rewards institutions that already have a lot of funding with even more funding.

Any given grant application as a whole is viewed through the filter of who the applicant scientist is and where they are doing the research. This bias tends to concentrate research funding, giving certain people and places a disproportionate share of funding.

So one might ask “if these scientists and institutions are the best, doesn’t it make sense that they should get more funding?” The simple answer might be “yes”, but if you dig deeper you realize that for the stem cell research field as a whole, the answer is “no”.

The first $200,000 per year in funding that an investigator gets in any give year has the highest impact. All funding after that has less and less impact. This “first funding” in a given area of research in any given year allows this researcher to continue to employ or to hire staff and buy the supplies needed to move this research forward. The second $200,000 is not as quite as high impact as the first, but still can make a huge difference by catalyzing the research of the particular lab to move forward more rapidly and impact the field.

Now imagine this same scientist gets a third unit of $200,000/year. The impact of this yet additional funding is even lower. The lab is already running well and this additional funding does not fundamentally change the research the way the 1st and maybe 2nd units of funding did.  If this investigator gets fourth, fifth, and maybe even 10th units, each of $200,000 per year, the impact of each unit goes down.  Imagine if instead those funds were given to multiple investigators who have relatively little funding, but who are just as good scientists, what will happen? The funding agency awarding the funds will see a higher overall impact of their investment.

The same principle applies to institutions, but on a larger scale. Institutions compete with each other for research funding as well and the review process is biased to reward institutions that have already had success in getting funding with more funding.  Once again, the “earlier” amounts of funding have far more impact. Institutions need to develop a critical mass of researchers and funding to advance their research. There is in essence a tipping point beyond which institutions can far more efficiently impact the field.  Some institutions have already achieved funding levels far beyond the tipping point. When funding agencies give these places more and more funding, the impact of each unit of funding is progressively lower and lower. The same funding awarded to an institution that has not crossed the tipping point could have exponentially higher impact on the field.

Someone once said “there is no monopoly on good ideas”. This is certainly true in the stem cell field and there is no monopoly on good science either. Well-funded people and places may have the best grantsmanship, but do not necessarily have the best ideas and are not necessarily the best equipped to do the science. Even so, funding agencies create an environment where certain institutions are rewarded with so much funding that virtual monopolies are created.

In so doing the funding agencies end up with less diverse portfolios and lower their impact on the field.

One potential solution to this problem is to “blind” reviewers to the identity of the applicants and the institutions that they come from. While in a blinded system, reviewers may still be able to guess who the applicant is, most often they cannot be sure. In theory this strictly merit-based system could work as it would reward the best science without bias, but to my knowledge no one uses such a system.

However, another approach that might work better in the “real world” is for funding agencies to fundamentally alter the process by which they decide what to fund. The single most important criteria in a new, better system would be impact of the funding where impact is defined not only by the potential impact of the proposed research but also the impact of funding that research. This may seem like a subtle distinction between the types of impact, but there’s an enormous difference.

For example, imagine a hypothetical world where two scientists (A and B) submit the identical research application to a funding agency, and scientists A and B have identical abilities as scientists, but scientist A already has $1,500,000/year in funding and scientist B only has $200,000/year in funding.  From a purely research impact perspective, the funding could go to either scientist. From a funding impact perspective, the funding would have far more impact going to scientist B.

Paradoxically, though, in the world that us scientists work in, 90% of the time the funding would in reality go to scientist A because  the reviewers (perhaps not even consciously) would be impressed by the funding and reputation that scientist A already has and the super-funded institution where they do their work.

If you buy my argument, you might realize that such a new system would shift funding to younger, newer scientists and also up-and-coming institutions. Yes, that is a likely reality of such a new system, but is that a bad thing? One might also wonder if the heaps of funding given to certain already well-funded scientists might allow them to pursue new and different ideas that they might otherwise not be able to study? In theory that’s possible, but I would argue that most of the time that does not happen.

There are scientists out there in the stem cell field with 6 or 10 or even more grants totaling millions of dollars per year in funding. There are loads of scientists just as “good” as the uber-funded ones, but who have relatively much less funding.

I think that no matter how “good” the well-funded scientists are, that the funding agencies have nonetheless lowered the impact of their dollars by over-funding some scientists and some institutions at the expense of others, where the funding would have more impact.

%d bloggers like this: