. "Investing in High-Risk and Breakthrough Research." Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2007.
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Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future
FOSTER INNOVATION THROUGH YOUNG INVESTIGATORS
While peer review provides a high-integrity process sheltered from political forces, evidence suggests that it tends to favor both established investigators and investigators, new or continuing, who build on established research lines.6 As a result, young investigators have difficulty establishing themselves as independent researchers, which can have a variety of negative consequences for establishing careers, ensuring an adequate research workforce, and bringing fresh insights and ideas to the research enterprise. Indeed, recent research indicates that the age at which great innovations are produced has increased by about 6 years over the 20th century, and the loss of productivity at earlier ages is not compensated for by increased productivity after early middle age7 (see Figures HRR-2A and B). The risk is that competence and productivity can be honored to the point where they become the “enemies of greatness.”
The current system tends to emphasize the number of papers published and can overlook whether important problems are being tackled. Because requests for grant funds from new investigators are evaluated on the basis of “preliminary results,” most funded research becomes constrained to well-worn research paths, which for new investigators often means the research they previously pursued when they were postdoctoral fellows in established laboratories. In short, innovation can become the victim of a system that has become too risk-averse.
Because of the difficulties facing new investigators, the median age at which investigators receive their first research grant from NIH, for example, had crept up to 42 years in 2002. This raises the concern that new investigators are being driven to pursue more conservative research projects instead of high-risk, high-reward research that can significantly advance science. Also, young investigators can end up focusing much of their attention on others’ research, forfeiting the special creativity that they may bring to their own work (see Figures HRR-3A, B, and C).8
The same considerations apply to work funded by the Department of Defense (DOD). The need for new discoveries and innovation argues for substantial involvement of university researchers. Yet some younger university researchers in the expanded fields of interest to the DOD are discouraged by difficulty in acquiring research support from the department.9
National Research Council. Bridges to Independence: Fostering the Independence of NewInvestigators in Biomedical Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2005.