Almost all scientists agree that the modern research grant system has both good and bad effects upon the science enterprise. Periodic efforts by the largest granting agencies of the federal government create additional support opportunities for research scientists, but unfortunately these only seem to provide small improvements. Scientific research costs billions of dollars annually in the United States (U.S.) (see: “Why is Science so very Expensive? Why do Research Experiments Cost so Much?”); financial support comes from government agencies (via taxpayers) and from industrial companies. Background materials about the multibillion-dollars in research support funds currently awarded by the largest agencies are readily available on the internet for the National Science Foundation (NSF) (see: “About the National Science Foundation” ) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) (see: “About National Institutes of Health” ).
Many university researchers wish that new directions and new support programs would be initiated so as to remove or decrease the negative aspects of the current research grant system. This short series of essays puts forth proposals for some really new and different kinds of research grants, as an attempt to insert some new ideas for funding mechanisms. The proposed initiatives will help invigorate the decayed status of experimental research studies in U.S. universities (see: “Could Science and Research now be Dying?” ). My proposals will function nicely within the present research grant system.
What are Pilot Studies, and Why are they Important?
Pilot studies are short-term experimental research efforts seeking to find which subjects, approaches, and methods are best suited to produce good results for a possible new research investigation. Ideally, these initial studies result in identification of which designs for experiments will work, what experimental subjects can be used effectively, which research questions or hypotheses can be answered or tested by the proposed experiments, and what types of results will be obtained. Pilot studies produce preliminary results confirming that a planned approach actually will answer a research question.
Only a limited time and effort usually can be expended on evaluating and devloping a potential new research project. In modern universities, pilot studies now often are: (1) conducted as minor side efforts during the investigations funded by a research grant, (2) assigned to a graduate student or a research technician, or, (3) done during a sabbatical leave. Pilot studies are important because they show how raw theoretical ideas can be converted into practical reality (i.e., sometimes a very clever idea just will not work in the research laboratory).
The current research grant system requires preliminary data for all applications, but unofficially discourages pilot studies. The grant system seeks solid new knowledge based on known approaches and building on already accomplished research results; this goal is inherently different from the exploratory nature of pilot studies. Although most pilot studies are more or less supported by current research grant award(s), there is not much room in funded research projects for really creative experimentation, trying out unconventional new ideas, or starting new work in some different area of science; pilot studies focus on exactly these aspects of research, and are much less restricted than ongoing regular studies. Additionally, use of research grant funds to conduct pilot studies is extremely difficult for the increasing number of good scientists now receiving awards with only partial funding.
The hidden value of pilot studies for science is that they often are individual expressions of creative and innovative ideas. Once a research grant is awarded, most activities are set in place and scheduled, with little necessity to think any new thoughts. Most scientists in universities stick to what they can get funded readily, and rarely switch projects or start work in other fields of science. Pilot studies often include creative designs, new approaches, and very innovative ideas. Hence, the most important role of pilot studies for science is that they stimulate new thoughts, new questions, and new experiments. Thus, pilot studies represent initial inputs of new ideas into science.
Support for pilot studies at present.
Current mechanisms for obtaining the necessary funds to conduct pilot studies are too limited. I have not found any general supportive programs at the NSF or NIH that fund only pilot study research. Actual lab work in pilot studies more frequently is a short subsidiary effort funded by an ongoing research grant; there is little push to conduct creative or unconventional studies with really new research questions and ideas. Some science organizations do make awards for pilot studies, and some medical schools do have special programs internally supporting pilot studies for their faculty researchers.
The only other general funding source for pilot studies appears to be crowdfunding. This new type of public-supported and -donated funding usually features limited amounts of money and time, but that is exactly what is needed for pilot research. Most applicants already have a well-equipped research lab. However, the chief problem with crowdfunding is that the general public often cannot readily comprehend what is involved in pilot studies and how that is used by science; therefore, proposals by scientists to support new pilot studies cannot readily compete with proposals for conducting creative projects in the arts. Accordingly, grant support for pilot studies is quite limited, and a new kind of support program for pilot studies now is needed!
Details of the proposed new research grants for pilot studies.
I propose a new type of research grant, dedicated to enabling the conduct of more new pilot studies. This new award program will support worthy pilot studies at universities for a duration of 1-4 months. At least a 25-50% effort by the Principal Investigator (P.I.) is required. No expenses for salary of the P.I. and no indirect costs will be supported. Direct costs for supplies, lab personnel, and research travel (e.g., to conduct studies at an off-campus location) will be supported. All awards are limited to a maximum total of $40,000. Successful outcome to a pilot study supported by this new granting program is expected to lead to a new proposal for funding by a regular research grant mechanism.
Who can apply? Applications for pilot study grants can be submitted by any scientist or engineer with a doctoral degree, and having access to adequate laboratory space and instrumentation facilities. Applicants holding a faculty status are preferred. Graduate students and Postdocs cannot apply for these grants. Any individual scientist can have only one pilot study award for any calendar year.
Proposals: Applications for new pilot studies can involve any area of modern science. Proposals must fully describe the new experimental investigations to be conducted, examine all possible results, explain what research project could follow if the pilot studies are successful, and, give reasons how and why both this pilot study and the anticipated subsequent research work are important for science and society. Available research facilities to be used must be described in detail. All anticipated costs must be justified. Pilot study grants are not supplements to currently awarded research grants; applications must make clear how the proposed pilot study relates to any and all current awards. This new granting program has no renewals. Awards can permit new pilot studies by science faculty currently without a research grant, or, by those wishing to begin research on a new and different subject or branch of acience. Proposals with innovative and unconventional new approaches are welcomed.
How will proposaals be evaluated? Priority for funding will be evaluated by peer review on the primary basis of: (1) quality of the planned new experiments, (2) likelihood that completion of the proposed pilot study will result in submission of a new meritorious research grant application, and (3) potential contributions to the progress of science.
How will science benefit from new grants for pilot studies? The proposed new granting program will provide funds that: (1) increase the number of pilot studies being conducted, (2) enable preliminary studies to be made where simultaneous regular grant awards do not provide sufficient “extra funds” for pilot studies, and (3) provide opportunities for established university scientists to switch their research into new subjects or new areas of science. This new kind of research grant will increase creative research ideas and investigations, enlarge the scope of innovative research activities at universities, and, encourage new ventures in scientific research by professional scientists and engineers.
There still are too many barriers to making important new research discoveries and advances. In my opinion, the biggest problem in modern laboratory science is not insufficient support money, but that there are restrictions for developing new ideas, thinking new thoughts about research, using new designs for experiments, and, devising unconventional approaches to solve difficult or controversial research questions. The new grants for pilot studies will be instrumental in overcoming some current restrictions limiting the progress of scientific research. If support is given to pilot studies that investigate controversies, use creative designs with unconventional approaches, and start or switch research work onto very new projects, then significant research advances and science progress will follow.
By increasing the number of pilot studies, the number of really new scientific investigations will be fostered. This new support mechanism provides a good answer to the increasingly frequent question from university scientists, “How can I test my new idea for research and get the required preliminary data when I do not now have a research grant?” Former faculty grantees who have been hung up to dry or die will have a new opportunity to return to active research. By fostering new developments, new ideas, and new activity in experimental research, the new pilot study grants will stimulate the improvement and progress of today’s science.
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