Steven McKnight's recent President's Message at ASBMB Today focuses on the tyranny of the hypothesis-test when it comes to grant evaluation.
I lament that, as presently constructed, the NIH system of funding science is locked into the straight-jacket of hypothesis-driven research. It is understandable that things have evolved in this manner. In times of tight funding, grant reviewers find it easier to evaluate hypothesis-driven research plans than blue-sky proposals. The manner in which the system has evolved has forced scientists to perform contractlike research that grant reviewers judge to be highly likely to succeed. In financially difficult times, more risky scientific endeavors with no safely charted pathway to success often get squeezed out.
.... But how should we describe the riskier blue-sky research that our granting agencies tend not to favor?
I agree. All science starts with observation. And most science, even a lot of that alleged to be hypothesis testing or lending "mechanistic insight" really boils down to observation.
If we do this, then that occurs.
Science never strays very far from poking something with a stick to see what happens.
The weird part is that McKnight doesn't bring this back to his "fund people not projects mantra". Amazing!
No, he actually has a constructive fix to accomplish his goals on this one.
Were it up to me, and it is clearly not, I would demand that NIH grant applications start with the description of a unique phenomenon. When I say unique, I mean unique to the applicant. The phenomenon may have come from the prior research of the applicant. Alternatively, the phenomenon may have come from the applicant’s unique observation of nature, medicine or the expansive literature.
This is great. A fix that applies to the project-focused granting system that we have. Fair for everyone.