Funding basic research - powering breakthroughs

13 December 2019
Science is expensive. New medical treatments or improved therapies are often derived from novel insights in fundamental scientific research. Such research requires state-of-the-art equipment, talented personnel, specialized reagents and, potentially, rigorous safety testing. None of these things is cheap. Researchers therefore depend on external funding to finance their research programs and research team to tackle some of the greatest challenges we face.

Fortunately, many funding agencies, patient organizations, and investor groups recognize this reality and generously support scientists working on issues close to the societal challenges they are focusing on. Scientific breakthroughs in medicine, agriculture, and many other fields are often the direct result of the investment of external funders and donors in excellent research teams.

Funding research, or funding researchers?
The scientific ecosystem is complex. Add to that that, from time to time, major new insights arise through
serendipity, and it’s easy to see that funding decisions are no walk in the park. Individual researchers can
work on different projects simultaneously, research programs of different group leaders can intersect, and unexpected discoveries can shift the direction of entire fields.

So, who, or what, should be funded in order to yield maximum benefits? This is a question organizations
and funding agencies must answer each time they decide to invest in scientific research. And the answer is elusive and ever-changing. 

Grants are often tied to specific research projects or individual researchers, but scientists tend to work on different aspects of a topic, or on several topics at once. Furthermore, modern science thrives through collaboration, with each of the collaborators possibly funded by another source. Similarly, research programs can investigate different facets of a research avenue and involve various investigators. As such, exactly pinpointing where the money will go is a fool’s errand. Perhaps the best option is to build flexibility into the financing programs with regards to the expenditure as long as the original goal remains the envisioned outcome.

Credit where credit is due
The funders are not the only ones facing a daunting question of impressive complexity. The funded scientists themselves must deal with a difficult question of their own: when and how to acknowledge the generosity that made their work possible? 

In large collaborations, must every collaborator mention his or her funding sources, even when none of the funding was used in this particular project? What if the project followed from earlier work that was supported by a specific grant, but that specific grant was not used in the current project? What if a PhD student contributes to a project that is not officially part of her or his PhD (as is often the case in scientific research)? Mention the PhD funding source? Or the source of the project’s funding? Or both? And what if the success of a research program depends not only on many collaborators, but also on many funding sources? Which one should be acknowledged first? Should all of them be acknowledged all the time, even though perhaps some funding is used for only part of the overarching program? 

It is, as is hopefully clear by now, a path to be trod carefully.
Of course, funders should be acknowledged. That much is certain and obvious. It is the how and the when that is not obvious. Can a broader view be useful?

Funding science and progress
Science does not progress linearly. It is a large undertaking. Seemingly obvious routes ahead can hit invisible roadblocks and negative results can open up new paths forward.

Funding, at its best, facilitates breakthroughs by allowing top talent and cutting-edge technology to meet. The results of such encounters are what powers breakthroughs and generates impact. Maybe, then, the potential outcome ought to be the most relevant aspect of funding decisions rather than the details of how, when, and on whom the money is spent? Given the enormous complexity of the current scientific endeavor, taking a step back to discern a broader picture can be beneficial to funders, scientists, and other stakeholders. Funders and donors should engage with the researcher in a culture of trust rather than in a culture dominated by accountancy, resting assured that their generous gifts are well-spent, even more so since many research institutes – VIB included – invest heavily in evaluation, research management processes and HR in order to attract the most talented and driven individuals.

It is understandable that funding agencies and organizations want to invest in specific topics that are most of interest to them. But, as any life scientist will tell you, in biology there are no clear-cut, perfectly defined research questions and answers. Many things are connected at both microscopic and macroscopic scales and will change throughout the course of the research, with the only goal: to reach the envisaged results and beyond.

Scientists can define a general direction they would like to pursue but can – and perhaps should? – forego
overly strict adherence to specific, narrow research plans if this would cause them to neglect fruitful opportunities to push the boundaries of knowledge. The key to a mutually beneficial funding arrangement is sharing a vision where scientific progress positively impacts society and lessens the burden of disease, hunger, and poverty. When both funders and scientists work towards this vision, every cent will be well-spent.

Go back to the overview:  'Great Science has many supporters'​

©VIB-Ine Dehandschutter