For scientists researching and teaching at a university, medical school, or research institute, part of their traditional mission is to dream up new ideas. Good ideas help with many activities, including designing new experiments, modifying research instruments and methods, composing research reports for publication in science journals, developing new concepts, deciding how to present complex topics in course lectures, etc.
Despite the curiosity-driven output of new ideas originated by professional scientists, almost all are discarded by faculty researchers at modern universities. This dispatch discusses the difficult conditions leading to a decision about what will be done when a really stimulating new research idea magically arises.
How do scientists deal with their new research ideas?
New ideas can pop up all the time! Some are good, some are awful, and some are funny! All scientists have curiosity, but some researchers come up with so many new ideas that they are known as “idea people”. The first task to deal with new ideas is essential: write down everything so it can be recalled later. Unless promptly recorded, new ideas are rapidly forgotten and disappear forever.
The second task is to evaluate if the new idea has sufficient merit to be put into practice. Since grant-supported faculty scientists have already decided to work mainly or only on their funded research project, this evaluation looks at whether the new idea has enough relevance to be added to the research activities underway for the current research grant. If it does not, then it must either be discarded or dumped onto an ever-growing pile of ideas that are stored for some future time that never seems to come; fortunately a few of the many new ideas recorded in a log book can be used later when constructing an application for renewal of the present research grant. If it does have good relevance, the scientist advances to ultimate questions of exactly how, when, and where can the idea be inserted and used in the ongoing laboratory efforts; most new ideas never reach this stage.
What usually happens to good new ideas?
The previous paragraph gives some idea of the usual lack of freedom for faculty scientists to undertake any new research work not directly connected to their funded project. This restriction is very strong due to the immense pressures from 2 related issues that all inventive faculty scientists must face. First, there is the time problem (see: “Why is the Daily Life of Modern University Scientists so Very Hectic?” ); most academic scientists now have almost zero free time since they are so busy running experiments for their grant-supported project, writing applications to acquire more research grants, teaching in courses, publishing research reports, starting a family, etc. In theory, if a new idea is really super-promising for research, the funded scientist could try to acquire an additional (second) research grant for a new project using that idea. This maneuver is not so easy due to the second problem, the hyper-competition to acquire research grants (see: “All About Today’s Hyper-Competition for Research Grants” ). Yes, good new ideas are sought by the federal granting agencies, but the intense hyper-competition means that most will never get funded. Thus, almost all good new ideas for research are basically dead-on-arrival and are discarded!
Another possibility for initiating research using a new idea is to use a small portion of the current financial support to conduct some pilot studies. That work costs the scientist both money and time, and it can be done only when there actually is some extra money and extra time available; both conditions often are very questionable. If the pilot data are very promising, then attention is given to composing a strong application for an additional research grant; that takes many months, meaning that this promising new project with a second grant could be started only at least one year later. More realistically, an application for a small exploratory research grant can be submitted to dedicated funding sources (e.g., American Cancer Society); the preliminary data obtained then are used to compose a strong application for a new standard research grant.
New ideas are not repressed by innovative models for funding research studies!
To be able to more freely explore and use new ideas for research, a Principal Investigator must have some free time, supplemental funds, and a working atmosphere that encourages trying new research approaches and new studies. Those are strong features of the very innovative research support programs and special institutes recently established by James E. Stowers (see: “A Jackpot for Scientific Research is Created by James E, and Virginia Stowers! Part II: The Stowers Institute is a Terrific New Model for Funding Scientific Research!” ) and Paul G. Allen (see: “Getting Rid of Research Grants: How Paul G. Allen is Doing It!” ). The unusual features of these support programs will result in research breakthroughs that were not otherwise possible when the same investigators were previously working with regular research grant support.
General discussion about new ideas in science!
The main message here is that faculty scientists do come up with many good ideas, but these are not easily put into practice unless they are closely related to their present research grant. If a determined scientist would somehow move their current grant into supporting a new project, that decision almost guarantees non-renewal. With the multiple restrictions now prevailing, only a very few new research ideas ever will be pursued; thus, the practical conditions generated by the research grant system and modern universities repress the creation of research ideas that are new, creative, and significant. It seems totally pointless to faculty scientists to try to work on anything not directly related to their funded project!
Grant-supported faculty scientists today have little choice in dealing with new ideas because they are slaves to their research grant! The system discourages creativity and questioning, so new ideas are simply discarded! When all the restrictions are realistically considered, the best possibility for activating a new research idea is to make such into part of an application for renewal of a funded grant.
Yes, research freedom is very important for science! Having new ideas for research is essential to all scientists, but putting the good ideas into practice is not very easy due to restrictions imposed by the research grant system, the time problem, and the commercialism now rampant at modern universities (see: “What is the Very Biggest Problem for Science Today?”). Fortunately for the progress of science, some new research ideas do manage to be activated despite all the restrictive difficulties!
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