Free Up Funding
Following trends and buzzwords is delaying progress. We need more support for diverse, curiosity-driven research projects.
Those who manage to get to the top of their game do so by keeping up with advances across many fields, because principles and concepts developed in one area can be applied elsewhere. In my field, for example, advances in radio and microwave research, such as double resonance methods and multi-pulse approaches, are finding their way into optical spectroscopy. In short, it often pays to widen one’s focus. Yet, in academia at least, the system almost seems organized to frustrate this. We divide into mass spectrometry, nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), electron paramagnetic resonance (EPR) or infrared spectroscopy researchers (I could go on): it’s quite plain to see that the majority of us concentrate on one area, and it is mainly because of the instrumentation that we have access to in our labs. That’s a serious practical limitation: if you’re doing Raman spectroscopy, it’s not easy to get into NMR even if you see a need. Cost is an issue.
This current instrument-limited approach to research is far from ideal but it isn’t going to be easy to alter. At the heart of the reasons why not is funding, which acts as a double brake on change. The first brake is the shortfall in funding resources, which limits the investments that can be made; that’s nothing new. But the second brake stems from the fact that funding tends to follow the latest fashions.
In actual fact (and slightly contrary to what I’ve just stated) my group moved somewhat away from optical spectroscopy into mass spectrometry (MS), partly out of the need to follow funding patterns. It means that we have more instrumentation at our disposal, which allows greater freedom in research projects, but it wasn’t an easy transition. And clearly, while learning and applying new knowledge is fun, it does require money. To summarize, we lucky to be able to expand our lab by riding a great wave of interest in MS back in 1983.
Right now, the wave of interest, or fashion, requires that you include the prefixes “bio” or “nano” and add “materials,” if you want to maximize your chances of receiving funding. And many of us feel the pressure to do so. To me, it’s a really negative feature of academic research today. If we are all going in the same direction, none of us will dare to take a big step forward – it’s too risky because while you’re trying to take your big step, all the smaller steps are being filled behind you! With everybody marching in lock step, big breakthroughs become unlikely.
We need a rethink. To paraphrase Richard Feynman, if a person publishes in a less crowded field, he would not only seem better and bigger, he would be better and bigger. So, in my mind at least, there are clear benefits of being involved in new and different areas, but everything from funding patterns to impact factors argues against going for it.
So, is there a way forward? Here, in the United States at least, funding is largely driven by governmental agencies, meaning that it is driven to a certain extent by political considerations. I offer a potential seed of a solution: a shift from hypothesis-driven science to curiosity-driven science.
Bioscience and nanoscience, while valuable, are not the only important areas of research. Many other areas are not even being considered because there’s no obvious hypothesis-driven funding mechanism: nanoscopic imaging and multispectral imaging methods, for example, should get more attention, as should two-dimensional infrared spectroscopy. The problem is that, currently, funding isn’t provided on the basis of simple curiosity alone. A possible solution is to provide some funding solely on the basis of track record; this would offer flexibility but is contrary to most current thinking.
But it is not all doom and gloom. Instrument limitations and funding patterns point towards collaboration and that’s a good thing. Collaborative research is not only popular right now, it’s also important. It offers us a chance to break away from the limitations of our own labs and explore and profit from a wider world. Physicist recognized this truth a long time ago – chemists and biologists are finally following suit.
Gary Hieftje is distinguished professor and Robert & Marjorie Mann chair at the Department of Chemistry, School of Public and Environmental Affairs, and School of Informatics, Indiana University Bloomington, USA. Gary’s research interests include the investigation of basic mechanisms in atomic emission, absorption, fluorescence and mass spectrometric analysis, the development of instrumentation and techniques for atomic methods of analysis, on-line computer control, the use of time-resolved luminescence processes, and the use of stochastic processes to extract basic and kinetic chemical information.