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Risky Business: Balancing Innovation and Uncertainty

In early 2011, I published an article in Science Translational Medicine identifying some of the concrete steps that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) - as the nation's premier biomedical research agency - has taken to encourage, promote, and sustain a culture of innovative, out-of-the-box thinking.

The ultimate source and locus of innovation and invention lies not with specific institutions or organizations but rather with the individual person, and thus the individual person is worth investing in. In early 2011, I published an article in Science Translational Medicine identifying some of the concrete steps that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) - as the nation's premier biomedical research agency - has taken to encourage, promote, and sustain a culture of innovative, out-of-the-box thinking. I highlighted the importance that innovative technology development has played in augmenting the ability to perform hypothesis-driven research, the type of research traditionally supported by what NIH terms as its "R01" Research Project Grant (RPG) mechanism. As I stated in the article, I consider it to be no coincidence that R01 RPGs, the type of award most commonly used at NIH, are investigator-initiated, meaning that they are designed to support individual scientists as they pursue answers to some of the most pressing and significant biomedical research questions of our time. The National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), a particular Institute within the NIH, has not only embraced this concept and theme of innovation but has also built upon it by generating a first-of-its kind grant mechanism that centers wholly on supporting individual persons rather than individual projects.

The MIRA Example

Known as the Maximizing Investigators' Research Award or "MIRA" (which ironically means "Look" in the Spanish language), this new mechanism of supporting scientific research and exploration is unique for multiple reasons: 1) It promotes maximal creativity and flexibility by not tying research to the incorporation of pre-determined specific aims. MIRA is based on the realization that the manner in which most science is currently supported in the United States may not necessarily be consistent with the means by which most science is currently conducted. That is to say that in the pursuit of scientific discovery, researchers work best when they have the flexibility to "follow their noses"², to pursue creative and ambitious thoughts, ideas, and insights rather than being overly tied to a set of specific aims that might have been created and/or evaluated several years earlier. The aim of research should always be the pursuit and achievement of knowledge rather than the satisfaction of a specific line item. 2) It acknowledges the uniqueness of individuals while attempting to level the playing field. MIRA acknowledges the differences between well-known and well-established scientists and those who might be newer to the field. As such, it provides for separate and distinct review criteria and processes between these two highly different groups. Applications from new or early-career investigators are evaluated relative to their peers rather than against individuals who might have had a much longer period of time in the field and hence a significantly more extensive track record of publication and accomplishment. As such, it treats ideas from these two separate groups equally rather than unevenly and yet strives to cultivate the best ideas from them both. 3) It decreases administrative burden. MIRA consolidates support for all of the R01-supported work in an investigator's laboratory while simultaneously extending the period of support for such work by an additional year relative to the traditional NIH R01 RPG. As such, it diminishes the amount of time that investigators spend in synthesizing grant applications and provides for increased stability of funding. More time is actually devoted to the pursuit of scientific research rather than simply writing grant application after grant application. 4) It is completely viable in a budget neutral or otherwise budgetarily challenging environment. MIRA attempts to achieve budget neutrality while still maximizing the potential for scientific discovery and important breakthroughs by consolidating and supporting all of an investigator's R01 support into a single grant mechanism. As such, the amount of support might be smaller than the cumulative total of all R01 RPGs in an investigator's laboratory but still greater than any single R01 alone. This focus, coupled to the enhanced flexibilities of MIRA as indicated above, acknowledges and addresses certain fiscal realities without diminishing the probability of important discoveries or scientific breakthroughs.

How MIRA Promotes Creativity and Innovation by Embracing Calculated Risk

Nothing inherently innovative comes without a certain degree of uncertainty or risk. Thus, while some of the above items might strike some as rather 'risky' propositions, the NIGMS has attempted to embrace rather than shy away from this uncertainty by proactively mitigating it in a number of ways. First, the Institute has "phased" the launch of MIRA such that it begins as a pilot program. Second, commensurate with its role as a steward of taxpayer funds, it has conducted multiple analyses to inform the manner of the pilot program's launch. Multiple portfolio analyses were conducted to inform and anticipate such parameters as the number of eligible investigators that would likely apply, the average amount of award that can be made based on potential application load, the scientific and geographic diversity of the likely applicant pool, and the distribution of likely applicants (new versus early stage versus later stage or established investigators). Third, it has pre-structured evaluative criteria into the pilot program such that data will be collected throughout the program's initial period and rigorous quantitative analyses subsequently conducted at the conclusion of the pilot, the results of which can potentially be used to inform further changes - if any - to the program. In an environment wherein budgetary and legislative challenges continue to exist if not expand, the tendency among most institutions and organizations is to proceed with or retract toward the status quo. Yet, it is usually in such environments wherein innovation, creativity, and drive - rather than fear - are most needed. True progress requires both innovative ideas and the courage to translate them into concrete actions. It should be noted that these characteristics do not equate to engaging in haphazardness but rather to a careful blending of thought, analysis, and novel ideas with courageous action. With the myriad of challenges we currently face, choosing to halt progress and creativity by engaging in nothing more than promoting the status quo may truly be a risky business. References:

  1. Aragon, R. "Thinking Outside The Box: Supporting Non-Hypothesis Driven Research at the NIH". 2011. Sci.Transl.Med. Feb 16:3(70).
  2. Lorsch, J. "Bolstering Our Commitment To Investigator Initiated Research". 2014. NIGMS Feedback Loop. Jan 13.
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