Archive for the ‘R&D Funding’ Category

Big Blue Descendant May Be Future Nobel Winner

April 4th, 2009

Posted by: admin

Computers and robots have helped automate science dramatically over the last 70 years.  In most cases, this involved so-called ‘brute force’ applications, where the scope of calculations involved sucked up a lot of time and required a lot of people.  Computers helped displace the legions of human calculators – usually female -  employed to do astronomical or ballistic calculations by hand (read When Computers Were Human).  Computers and robotics helped make genome mapping something that can be done in months rather than decades.

In what could prompt another shift in scientific human resources, there are reports (H/T Wired Science) of a robot actually forming and testing hypotheses.  Working in the baker’s yeast genome, the robot Adam worked to fill in gaps in understanding of the yeast’s metabolism.  By scanning a database of similar genes and enzymes from other organisms, Adam utilized algorithms to determine possible genes in the yeast genome that would correspond to orphan enzymes – enzymes that had no known gene coding for them.  After forming an hypothesis, Adam would conduct the experiment, analyze the data, and refine the hypothesis.  The robot’s designers recently confirmed by hand Adam’s discovery of three genes that coded for an orphan enzyme.

At the moment, designing these robots will continue to be a specialized affair – one robot for a particular area of research will likely be different from a robot for a different area of research.  But if there is the potential of standardizing, or at least spreading, such robot development, how and where science can be conducted could change dramatically.


Encourage Risky Research Through Finance? Maybe

April 2nd, 2009

Posted by: admin

That appears to be one of the suggestions for how to encourage more risky research in a recent article in Physics World (H/T Scientific Blogging).  Risky in this case is meant to be different, unique, cutting-edge, not high potential for harm or damage.  This is another effort to address a perennial research management question – how do you encourage enough of this kind of risky research in order to keep getting the kind of radical breakthroughs that push science and technology along.  Science is an inherently conservative (small-c) process, as it requires the agreement of the community to establish its information.  Those who take risks and fail lose a lot, as tenure committees, journal boards, and funding organizations don’t deal well with ‘failed’ experiments.


Varmus Apparently Promises Sun and Moon, but Takes Away the Stars

March 29th, 2009

Posted by: admin

Harold Varmus, one of the co-chairs of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (though you couldn’t tell by looking at their website), recently appeared before the Royal Society (H/T The Great Beyond) as part of the promotional tour for his recent memoir, The Art and Politics of Science.  As part of a panel discussion both Varmus and John Beddington, U.K. science adviser, downplayed the likelihood of significant boosts for science spending in either the U.S. or U.K. budgets.  Varmus recommended that researchers think creatively about the opportunities possible with stimulus funding, as he does not expect baseline budget amounts to increase, or at least increase significantly, in the near term.

I have yet to find any transcript of Varmus’ remarks, or of the discussion in general.  There’s also no mention of the address in other press reports.  An interview Varmus gave with the Times of London focused primarily on global issues.  According to The Great Beyond, he did give an address to the society, in which two interesting, if wildly optimistic, remarks were made.  In response to a question about teaching evolution, Varmus noted that President Obama was considering addressing science in a future address.  He also said that the Office of Technology Assessment would likely be brought back.  I’m skeptical for a couple of reasons.  President Obama addressed scientific integrity concerns with his remarks earlier this month.  Having the executive branch create an office for the legislative branch is not the easiest of tasks, and Congress has trouble passing much of anything.  So either Varmus has high expectations, or any new OTA will likely look very different from its predecessor.  Personally, I’d wait for the administration to finish its appointments to OSTP and ramp up that office and the new PCAST before throwing a new ball into the mix.

(UPDATE: A comment below from a reader who was at the event suggests the account overplayed the OTA comments)

NIH Can See the Hard Landing This Time

March 26th, 2009

Posted by: admin

ScienceInsider reports that the House Appropriations Committee (the Labor, Health and Education Subcommitee) recently held a hearing on stimulus spending and the National Institutes of Health.  A webcast of the hearing is currently online.

An exchange between the subcommittee chairman, Rep. Jackson (D-IL) and Acting Director Kington noted the potential hard landing after the stimulus funds are spent by NIH and the acceptance rate declines as the budget comes back to Earth.

But hearing chair Jesse Jackson Jr. (D–IL) noted the obvious: The 2-year bolus of money could prove to be “a double-edged sword” if scientists can’t keep going when NIH’s budget drops to normal levels in 2011.

Raynard Kington, NIH acting director, said that because the stimulus-funded grants will lead to new advances and ideas, NIH expects a rise in applications in 2011. As a result, the success rate for grants could “drop several points below what it has been” if NIH does not receive a “substantial” budget increase, Kington said. The success rate is projected to be 21% in 2009, NIH officials say, which is close to the historical low.

Just because the cliff can be seen doesn’t mean it will be avoided.  It just makes it easier. Needs to Grow

March 16th, 2009

Posted by: admin

Part of the stimulus package is an increase in grants awarded across several departments.  There is a government-wide portal,, that is designed to handle much of this traffic.  According to an Office of Management and Budget memorandum (H/T Nature News), that system is seeing a dramatic increase in usage, and may be reaching its maximum capabilities.  Thankfully, the OMB was made aware of the problem and has required agencies to develop alternatives to in the event the system is overburdened.  While is seeing increased traffic, it has yet to reach a breaking point.

So, for those using the portal in the next few weeks, when you get mad at how long its taking, keep in mind that people are aware of the problem and trying to make sure it doesn’t break.

UK Funding Allocations Announced; Elite Institutions Displeased

March 14th, 2009

Posted by: admin

Earlier this week the U.K. Higher Education Funding Council released its funding allocations based – in part – on performance of U.K. universities in the periodic Research Assessment Exercise.  I wrote about the RAE earlier this year, and rumblings that various top-tier universities were frustrated by the outcomes. Unlike the funding structures in the United States, government research funding in the U.K. is awarded directly to institutions via the Research Councils.  Performance on the RAE matters, as well as an algorithm (all the better to crowd out expert judgment), and government priorities for specific research fields.

Reading this analysis from Times Higher Education, and a snapshot of affected universities (H/T ScienceInsider) suggests a few reminders with the whole process of government support of universities (and of research).


Global Downturn Affecting Universities Differently

March 6th, 2009

Posted by: admin

The European University Association released a snapshot (PDF) last month of how European universities are affected by the economic downturn (H/T ScienceCareers).  Focused on January and February of this year, the snapshots suggest no Europe-wide trends.  Some universities are facing budget cuts or cancelled increases, others are benefiting from stimulus packages similar to the one in the United States.  While the EUA snapshot focused on university budgets (save the issues with British universities with holdings in Icelandic banks), the ScienceCareers article notes the impact on foundations and other non-governmental organizations in Europe that have reined in spending during the current economy.

How the Stimulus Might Affect NSF Grantees

March 4th, 2009

Posted by: admin has a short article describing how the stimulus and omnibus funding will likely be used by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy.  In part due to reporting requirements, the stimulus funding is going to focus on increasing grant acceptance rates.  In other words, already awarded grants will not get a bump, but those grants that were rejected because of insufficient funds, or those currently awaiting a decision, stand a chance of receiving funds.  Statistics given in the article – a decline in the acceptance rate from 33 percent to 26 percent between 2000 and 2007 with no significant change in the proportion of highly rated proposals -  suggest the stimulus money (roughly 17,000 grants worth) – could help a number of faculty maintain their jobs (or bolster their tenure cases) in an era when universities will be tightening their belts.

NSF now has a website with its guidance on stimulus spending, as well as a placeholder for required reports on its spending.

Exploring the FY09 Omnibus

February 26th, 2009

Posted by: admin

While it might be overshadowed by the Obama Administration’s proposed FY 2010 budget, the House recently passed an omnibus bill to cover the rest of the current fiscal year’s budget.  The funding for most agencies this year is set to end late next week under the terms of the current continuing resolution.  The American Institute of Physics has been releasing breakdowns of the omnibus for various science and technology agencies, you can read them online (start with number 19).  You may notice that the final FY 2009 numbers for some agencies, or some components of agencies, show a decline from the Bush Administration’s requested FY 2009 amounts.  While it would be easy to chalk this up to the ongoing epic fail of non-biomedical science advocates to successfully persuade appropriators for increases, there are points worth noting:


Science Agency Guidance on the Stimulus

February 21st, 2009

Posted by: admin

While the National Science Foundation will wait until next week to release its guidance on the stimulus funding it is responsible for (in part because the National Science Board will meet on the subject early next week), the National Institutes of Health has released a letter (H/T DrugMonkey) outlining how it will handle its stimulus funding, at least where grants are concerned.  Acting Director Kingston indicated that his organization will focus on the following items: