3 thoughts on “Sally Rockey Talks about Advancing Innovative Research

  1. Based on my own recent experience with peer review, I believe that there are now two rather different types of science being funded by the NIH. Unfortunately in times of scarce resources these two types of science (and their practitioners and advocates) are often pitted against one another. Curiosity-driven science asks difficult questions with unpredictable answers and embraces the unexpected, whereas production-driven science asks straightforward questions addressed by large experiments designed to collect increasingly massive amounts of data. Both types of science are important, but I believe they should be reviewed separately with different criteria of “productivity” and “innovation”, ideally by reviewers with appropriate expertise. Funding institutes could then decide on the balance (curiosity-driven versus production-driven science) they desire within their scientific portfolios. As things stand now these two “camps” too often tear each other down in hopes of getting a bigger slice of an ever-smaller pie for their like-minded colleagues.

  2. Is there any means to have reviewers pay strict attention to the scientific merit of a proposal than getting tangled with grant management issues (human subjects, animal protocols, etc.) often with wrong interpretations of the NIH guidelines on, for example, human subjects and rating poor score of the said proposal. This has becme purvasive in many study sections, causing frustration to the applicants.

  3. Dear Dr. Rockey,

    Discussions on “advancing innovative research” obviously should begin with the definition of what do you consider in NIH “innovation” and how do you and your colleagues avoid confusing it with novelty. By the way, this is the major trap into which knowledge work executives, and above all NIH executives, fall again and again. The test of an innovation is that it creates value. A novelty only creates amusement. The test of an innovation — as is also the test of “quality” — is not: “Do we like it”? It is: “Do the Congress and American taxpayers want it and will they pay for it?”

    Furthermore, the identified innovation opportunity should be in tune with the strategic realities of our society, which are not only the accelerating aging of the population, increased frequency of autism, untreated cardiovascular, psychiatric and other diseases. It is the way the NIH itself and its customers define performance, whether NIH is able to make global competitiveness its major strategic goal. The “misfit” opportunity often looks very tempting — precisely because it looks truly “innovative.” But even if not resulting in failure — as it usually does — it always requires extraordinarily wasteful amounts of effort, money and time.

    The major problem is that historically, NIH manages research process for process rather than for results. Structural and operational reform of NIH is urgently needed: decentralization and de-bureaucratization of NIH is needed to return initiative to ICs. Mandatory limitation on NIH executive services by 5-6 years will reduce the very common problem of the lack of vision and virtue in executive offices. But the most urgent, most important issue is the radical reform, if not elimination, of CSR.

    About 10 years ago Peter Drucker wrote about the major problem of the knowledge work productivity: “Of particular importance is to identify the areas where intellectual arrogance causes disabling ignorance. Far too many people — and especially people with high knowledge in one area — are contemptuous of knowledge in other areas or believe that being “bright” is a substitute for knowing. And then the feedback analysis soon shows that a main reason for poor performance is the result of simply not knowing enough, or the result of being contemptuous of knowledge outside one’s own specialty.”

    The diagnosis of the NIH’ both review AND advisory systems is exactly this – the very common “believe that being “bright” is a substitute for knowing”. The result is exactly like Dr. Drucker described – “intellectual arrogance causing disabling ignorance”. Totally clueless CSR officers send grants to random “bright” reviewers without any check on the outcome, except the quantity. However, the question of how many reviews an individual can write is quite secondary to the question of how many reviews are valid and reliable. This remains unchecked.

    Without resolving these problems NIH will never be able to compete successfully for the world leadership in biomedical research and quite soon, especially on reduced budget, will loose its positions to Europe, China and India.

    NIH needs to develop a robust system of feedback analysis over the entire scientific process which it is entitled to fund. It should begin with the assignment of the grants and should make emphasis on people and outcomes rather than on process and input.

    The goal is to continuously increase the productivity of scientific research funded by NIH by;
    1. implementing economical criteria that effectively work in knowledge-intensive industry (e.g., value-added analysis) in feedback analysis,
    2. establishing criteria of responsibility for reviewers and advisers, their rotation and replacement on regular bases,
    3. implementation of the policy of systematic abandonment of poorly performing programs,
    4. implementation of the policy of systematic exploitation of success,
    5. implementation of the policy of continuous improvement of existing programs.
    6. But above all, scientists should be considered assets rather than costs, and should not be treated as interchangeable liabilities. This archaic attitude has roots in the management of manufacturing work and prevents NIH from fully using this major resource in its effort to keep competitive edge.

    I should recommend you to reinstall the OERRM/OER Knowledge Management Seminar Series in a form of an international symposium sponsored by NIH OER, stimulate research in this area, make it strategic priority with the goal of developing a practical model.

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