Posted on Tue, Mar. 20, 2007
Scientists resort to panhandling
By JASON GERTZEN
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Jim Stowers thinks it’s crazy how America pays for science.
Lead researchers in the nation’s university laboratories must act not only as scientists, but also as money chasers for the grants paying for much of their work.
“Sadly, many scientists currently devote 50 percent or more of their time searching and applying for funding,” Stowers, the benefactor of the Stowers Institute for Medical Research, wrote in a new book. “If the search for money begins to outweigh the precious time for vital research, it is a tragic waste of scarce resources – the scientists’ talents.”
Stowers, a mutual fund magnate who founded American Century Investments, had the financial acumen, plus the wealth, to do something about it.
He created a medical research institute now backed with endowments worth more than $2 billion. In 25 years, the endowments are expected to grow to nearly $11 billion, producing almost $380 million a year for research, according to The Best is Yet to Be, a new Stowers autobiography detailing his financial services career and later philanthropy
The idea at its heart, Stowers said, is launching smart scientists in passionate pursuit of major breakthroughs.
“We were determined to offer a luxury most scientists can only dream of: an opportunity to put all their effort into their research,” Stowers wrote. “All the funding would be provided in perpetuity, and the scientists would not have to spend half their time writing grants to please the current politically correct scientific research focus.”
Stowers’ passionate support for carrying out this idea has been a major aid in the institute’s efforts to attract luminary scientists to Kansas City, said Robb Krumlauf, the institute’s scientific director.
“We are free to spend more of our time devoted to research,” Krumlauf said.
The far more common funding approach for the majority of science done by university researchers has another troubling twist, Krumlauf said.
Taxpayers increasingly are demanding accountability for how the federal government parcels out its billions of dollars for research. As a result, Krumlauf said, leaders at such agencies as the National Institutes of Health have grown somewhat conservative about which projects they pick.
Scientists who submit winning grant applications tend to focus on experiments that have a high chance of success, often avoiding murkier areas that could produce breakthrough advances or big flops.
“They basically are funding things that you know will work,” Krumlauf said. “The question is, where do future discoveries come from?”
This is not to say that the Stowers approach allows its scientists to avoid accountability.
While they gain substantial support and great freedom to guide their own work, an advisory board of senior scientists eventually does review their results to determine if the researchers are worthy of being appointed for another term of about five to seven years.
“They do not get tenure. They get a term,” Stowers said in a recent interview. “Then they have to fight like hell to stay there. The interesting thing is they love the competition.”
To reach Jason Gertzen, call (816) 234-4899 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
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