Changing the Model of Research
The Proposed 2022 White House Budget- Is More Money the Only Answer?
By Claudia Neuhauser, Ph.D., Associate Vice President of Research and Technology Transfer, Professor of Mathematics, University of Houston; and Brian Herman, Ph.D., Professor, Department of Biomedical Engineering and former Vice President for Research, University of Minnesota and University of Texas Health, San Antonio.
Solving our current societal problems through academic research and development(R&D) may require changing the model of research. The federal government is ready to fund real change into matters of the future — energy transition, health and racial equity, advanced manufacturing. Academia always welcomes more money for research and development. However, the current system of research is a barrier to solving complex societal problems. Changes in the reward system, inclusion of multiple stakeholders, and new models of knowledge transfer into communities are needed to maximize the impact of the ever-growing R&D budgets. Changes should come from within academia, and academia should not wait for government entities to impose changes.
Research universities have benefitted tremendously from federal R&D investments. In FY 2019, the most recent year for which this information is available, 53% of research expenditures in higher education came from federal sources. Federal research funding has been instrumental for research universities to become an important part of the innovation ecosystem, and even more so after the enactment of the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 that enabled universities to profit from inventions developed under federally funded research. Today’s universities not only create environments where individual researchers and scholars expand the body of knowledge but also enable the transfer of knowledge and the commercialization of new discoveries, and much of it with federal funds.
The proposed 2022 White House Budget is strong on new R&D investments, particularly in areas that address societal needs, of which there are many. Let’s start with health: A CDC analysis stated that “[t]he COVID-19 pandemic has brought social and racial injustice and inequity to the forefront of public health. It has highlighted that health equity is still not a reality as COVID-19 has unequally affected many racial and ethnic minority groups, putting them more at risk of getting sick and dying from COVID-19.”
Health isn’t the only area where investments in R&D are needed to address societal needs. The 2022 Budget focuses on “rebuild[ing] America’s transportation infrastructure, water infrastructure, and broadband connectivity infrastructure” in its American Jobs Plan. It includes “build[ing] a clean energy future while investing in communities at risk of being left behind during our energy transition.” Increases in non-defense R&D “will boost America’s innovative edge in markets […] like battery technology, biotechnology, computer chips, and clean energy.”
The pandemic clearly showed that sustained funding for basic and applied research is invaluable. As an example, we got lucky that the mRNA vaccine technology was ready when we needed it. It took more than thirty years of research to develop this new technology, “two companies with vision, a longtime network of university labs, and decades of taxpayer funding.” It is doubtful that we would have been able to produce such a highly effective vaccine within a year of the initial outbreak without those prior investments.
The pandemic also made clear the long-known secret that academic research can be wasteful. Janet Woodcock, who headed up the COVID-19 therapeutics development and Operation Warp Speed, pointed to the lack of useful results from clinical trials during the annual leadership reception of the Friends of Cancer Research. She mentioned that “only about 6% of all the trial arms that are going on will yield actionable data.” She attributed the low percentage to the study designs that are often underpowered, don’t enroll enough people, and may not even be randomized.
We believe that there are several different reasons that contribute to academia’s challenge to effectively address societal problems and to academia’s propensity to be wasteful with research dollars.
The question we need to urgently ask now is whether just adding more money to a system that has not been able to solve many of our societal ills previously is sufficient to contribute to solving our current pressing societal problems or whether we need to consider, in addition to increased support, changing the model of research, specifically in the way we do promotion and tenure in research universities, and work with and implement solutions in communities.
At least in universities, some waste is due to the way faculty value the individual contribution of researchers over collaborative efforts. In the biomedical sciences, for instance, faculty are evaluated for promotion and tenure based on their ability to garner one or more single investigator NIH R01 grants. Darrell Kirch, in his AAMC President’s address during the 2007 Annual Meeting, already questioned this model of research more than a decade ago: “But in a world of increasing research complexity, in which science is more and more interdisciplinary and highly networked, just how well does this model of autonomous investigators work?”
It is not just the biomedical field where collaborations as a measure of career advancement are discouraged. Many humanities disciplines rely on the single-author book to evaluate faculty for tenure and promotion. A collaboration between humanities researchers with researchers in STEM areas (where the output is research articles in peer-reviewed journals) might be incompatible with the requirement to publish a single-author book.
Fields that require large collaborations also face their own challenges. As an example, in high-energy physics, hundreds of researchers are needed to carry out massive and very expensive experiments. No single researcher can take credit for themselves without acknowledging the contributions of many other researchers. Birnholtz described how this field developed ways to determine contributions and discusses the problems associated with a research environment where large numbers of researchers need to contribute in different ways to the success of an experiment. The need to be noticed is one of the issues, and he points out that “[it] is also quite easy to get lost or even crushed in the crowd of a large HEP collaboration.”
Funding agencies have recognized that to solve large and complex problems, collaborations are essential, and these collaborations often need cross-disciplinary boundaries. For instance, the NSF has promoted for some years now convergence research as a “means [to solve] vexing research problems, in particular, complex problems focusing on societal needs” and has included it formally in the Ten Big Ideas in 2016. Convergence research reflects the realization that technologies alone cannot solve societal problems. It takes a significant commitment of time and effort to establish collaborations across disciplines if they have not traditionally collaborated, and the current merit system discourages this level of investment. Furthermore, if we value being a PI on a grant or first author on a publication more than the actual contributions toward solving a significant societal problem, researchers who want to collaborate start essentially with one hand tied behind their back.
The promotion and tenure rules are established by the university research community. There are no federal guidelines or mandates that tell a university how the reward system needs to look. The reward system is under the control of the faculty and university administration. If the research community wants to expand the reach of scholarly works to address societal problems more effectively, it needs to start rethinking how this can be accomplished. Changing the merit system and identifying other metrics than authorship, PI status, or being noticed would be a good start to incentivize collaborations across disciplines to address societal needs.
Another area that needs restructuring is how academia interacts with communities when addressing societal issues. These interactions are even more complex when the expertise of multiple disciplines at one or even multiple universities is required.
Universities have been pejoratively termed ivory towers because they are often thought of as a place where the faculty pursue their own intellectual interests, whether they are focused on practical concerns of everyday life or not. Societal problems cannot be solved by staying in the ivory tower when they affect communities, and without community input, it is doubtful that researchers will even ask the right questions. How researchers involve community members, however, needs to change from the current practice of simply having communities serve as study participants, which rarely gives community members a voice in the design of the research, and even more importantly, rarely any benefit from the insights gained by the research. All too often, the outcome is a research paper in a peer-reviewed journal, and no further contact between the investigator and the study participants occurs.
Many societal problems affect underserved communities disproportionally. Building the trust that is needed to involve a community in research would be facilitated if the researchers resembled the community they work in. The lack of diversity in STEM disciplines then becomes an additional barrier, and non-STEM disciplines that often have more diverse faculty might be better positioned in building relationships with communities.
There are good examples of humanities projects, such as the Puerto Rican Literature Project, that give underserved communities a voice and serve as a starting point to build trust between communities and academia.
Rawlings, Flexner, and Riley in Community-Led Research: Walking New Pathways Together highlight the importance of working closely with communities and listening to their needs before designing a research project. However, following this path may take years of working with the community before research can start, and this is in conflict with the timeline and structure of university promotion and tenure requirements. A community is not a lab where the researcher can come in, do a survey or intervention to get data for another publication, but then leave and never come back. One of the authors, James Flexner, told the Times of Higher Education that “[b]efore you go out into the field, you should be [asking] people: ‘What do you want out of this? How can we do this in a way that does no harm and ideally produces benefit?’ And the community gets to define the benefit — not [academics] as outsiders coming in.”
If a lot of up-front work is required before the ‘formal’ part of research can commence, Institutional Review Boards may find it difficult to approve the research because of the unknown direction it might take as the community and the research team jointly determine what questions are relevant. This concern could be alleviated through a robust post-approval monitoring system that is already in place for clinical research. It will require careful discussions that are, however, worth the effort if we want to have a positive impact on communities with our research.
Rethinking Knowledge Transfer
The final point we want to make is that as part of rethinking community engagement, we need to rethink knowledge transfer between communities and academia. Universities have made much progress in transferring technology developed by their faculty, staff, and students into the marketplace and have realized what it takes to bridge the gap from a proof of concept to producing a prototype that can be moved into a production environment. Proof of concept is too risky for the private sector to take on yet too advanced for academia to move any further. Technology Transfer Offices fill the gap and work with both the academic inventor and the private sector to de-risk technologies and get them ready for the market.
Commercializing technologies became only financially of value to universities after the Bayh-Dole Act allowed universities to profit from their own inventions. Prior to this, there was little incentive to move research into the marketplace. The federal government has taken other steps to de-risk technologies and provide incentives to develop technologies to get ready for the marketplace, such as the SBIR/STTR programs. The federal government also funds large institutes that are partnerships among industry, academia, and federal partners in areas of national priorities, such as the sixteen manufacturing institutes that are forming “a growing network of advanced manufacturing institutes to increase U.S. manufacturing competitiveness and promote a robust and sustainable national manufacturing R&D infrastructure.” 
There is no analog university office or network of institutes with partnerships among academia, communities, and the federal government to translate community-based research sustainably into communities. Universities have offices of community engagement or outreach that connect with communities but are not set up to support implementation programs at scale and to sustain them in the long run. There are currently no financial incentives, like the Bayh-Dole Act, to build such offices or institutes.
To implement interventions at scale will require getting the private sector and government agencies involved. Universities are good at developing pilot projects, doing the research to determine whether interventions are effective, and developing long-term data collection projects to monitor projects. They do not have the capacity to roll out interventions at scale and maintain them. This needs to be done by the private sector and government agencies. Some faculty still have reservations about working closely with the private sector, in particular in the non-STEM areas. To overcome these reservations will require a cultural shift that will take time, but it is necessary to scale up solutions and make them sustainable. Overcoming these reservations is also needed since research doesn’t end with handing the project over to the private sector or government. Researchers need to stay involved as valuable partners to monitor quality and continue to do research on the effectiveness of the intervention.
This article also appeared in The Big Idea, University of Houston.
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