Government Funded Research – Finally Catching Up With the Times

I’ve had high praise before for the way in which some government research programs are funded. Case in point, the Coordinated Agricultural Programs of the USDA, which seek to develop sustainable biofuel and bioenergy programs. Rather than just pay for a university or government lab to develop a new process and advance their field a bit further, the CAP’s fund the development of an actual, pilot-scale production facility along with the supply chains, workforce-training and sustainability analysis necessary to develop a model system. It also begins the process of incremental efficiency improvement necessary to turn a pilot scale production facility into one a commercial one.

Now, in another positive development, the National Science foundation has modified its Proposal and Award Policies for research funding to include products as well as publications as a goal of funded research ( http://is.gd/km8oao  h/t to @Matthewstepp and @ethanwhite). This may sound like a fairly small change, but it actually represents a meaningful step towards breaking academia out of it’s single-minded focus on publication as the gold standard by which the value of all research is measured. Anyone who’s read an academic journal or attended a conference lately knows that there are a lot of articles which meet the criteria for academic success (methodological novelty or high-quality original data collection) but have comparatively little relevance to real-life policy making. Don’t get me wrong, publications are a good thing and the peer-review process is the best available check we have on the quality of science, but many relevant problems today can be addressed with the tools we have available. Many academic journals aren’t interested in publishing articles in which an existing tool solves a real-world problem, so when government grants focus on publication as the standard by which success will be judged, you often motivate researchers to spend time developing publishable new methods rather than directly addressing real-world issues.

Now, with products, patents, outreach and other indicators of success allowed as evidence of merit, government funded research can more directly engage with its targeted issues. A professor of mine once told me that research grants basically pay you for work you’ve already done: you use the money to do the work necessary to get your next grant, while you apply the tools you developed during your previous work to the problem at hand. This isn’t a terrible way to do things, but there could certainly be more efficient methods. Allowing researchers to focus on solving real world problems, instead of having one eye on their ostensible goal and the other on journal articles, is a useful step. This won’t help the legions of talented young scholars who struggle to churn out papers to achieve tenure, but for those established labs which prefer to focus on actually solving real-world problems, this development is a very good sign.

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