On the Sly, if at All

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Via HBL, I learned of an outstanding piece (registration required) in the New York Times that illustrates in lurid detail how the federal grant system systematically prevents and impedes groundbreaking scientific research.

For 25 years, Eileen K. Jaffe received federal grants to run her lab. As a senior scientist at the Fox Chase Cancer Center, with a long list of published papers in prestigious journals, she is a respected, established researcher.

Then Dr. Jaffe stumbled upon results that went against textbook explanations, suggesting that it might be possible to find an entirely new class of drugs that could disable proteins that fuel cancer cells. Now she wants to find chemicals that might be developed into such drugs.

But her grant proposal was rejected out of hand by the institutes of health, not even discussed by a review panel. She had no preliminary data showing that the idea was likely to work, something reviewers always want to see, and the idea was just too unprecedented. [bold added]
But even this system doesn't have a 100% kill rate. Some scientists do know how to game it, although I wonder how long such an option will last.
Some experienced scientists have found a way to offset the problem somewhat. They do chancy experiments by siphoning money from their grants.

"In a way, the system is encrypted," [molecular biologist Keith] Yamamoto said, allowing those in the know to wink and do their own thing on the side.

Great discoveries have been made with N.I.H. financing without manipulating the system, [Richard] Klausner [a former Director of the National Cancer Institute] said.

"But," he added, "I actually believe that by and large it is despite, rather than because of, the review system." [bold added]
Read the whole thing. Amusingly (in a sick way), the NIH is "experimenting" with ways to improve this inherently broken system by encouraging innovation with "challenge grants," even as the best way to encourage truly cutting-edge research lies hidden in plain sight.
Now women with excess HER-2 proteins, who once had the worst breast cancer prognoses, have prognoses that are among the best. But when Dr. [Dennis] Slamon wanted to start this research, his grant was turned down. He succeeded only after the grateful wife of a patient helped him get money from Revlon, the cosmetics company.
Too bad so many scientists think that, without government loot, scientific progress would be retarded because those big, evil corporations "have no interest" in scientific research. That misconception will unfortunately cause companies like Revlon to have to continue to pay the highest corporate taxes in the world to finance mere tinkering, rather than have more of their own money at their own disposal to use for real innovation. (And no, government research prizes are not an "answer," either.)

Read the whole thing.

-- CAV


Sarah said...

At any rate, I liked some of the NIH cartoons on VADLO search engine!

Gus Van Horn said...

I like this one.