Committee on Science and Technology
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Press Releases :: October 8, 2009

Subcommittee Examines the Need for and Government’s Role in High-Risk, High-Reward Research

(Washington, DC) – Today, the House Science and Technology Committee’s Research and Science Education Subcommittee held a hearing to examine various methods to fund high-risk, high-reward research, also referred to as transformative, pioneering, or high-risk, high-payoff research. Specifically, the Subcommittee discussed the federal government’s role in supporting this research and how to address it in the 2010 reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act (Public Law 110-69).
According to the National Science Board (NSB), high-risk, high-reward research is driven by unique ideas and sometimes unconventional approaches that have the potential to create new models or fields within science and engineering or radically change our understanding of a current concept.
“Three years ago, in the Rising Above the Gathering Stormreport, a distinguished National Academies committee recommended that each federal research agency set aside eight percent of its budget for ‘high-risk, high-payoff’ research.  Not long after that, the NSB recommended that the National Science Foundation establish a ‘transformative’ research initiative,” stated Subcommittee Chairman Daniel Lipinski (D-IL). “Both of those reports reflected a growing consensus in the research community that the peer-review system had become too conservative in its funding decisions and even the brightest and most creative scientists and engineers are not bothering to submit more ambitious proposals.”
COMPETES increased funding for basic research in the non biomedical sciences and created ARPA-E, a high-risk, high-reward energy focused research program within the Department of Energy (DOE). In preparation for the COMPETES reauthorization, the Committee is exploring policy options for integrating more high-risk, high-reward research into NSF’s and other science agencies’ basic research portfolios.
In 2008, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences released a report, Advancing Research in Science and Engineering: Investing in Early-Career Scientist and High-Risk, High-Reward Research (ARISE). ARISE detailed specific recommendations about how federal agencies, universities, and private foundations can promote more high-risk, high-reward research without a significant increase in their research budgets.
The ARISE report discusses two approaches to funding: 1) creating targeted programs or grant mechanisms, or 2) systemic reform of the current peer-review process. The first approach would require federal agencies or Congress to determine the amount of money to allocate for high-risk, high-reward research. The second approach would change the composition of or charge to review panels.
Subcommittee Members also discussed the need for metrics to evaluate the success of any new policy or program to encourage high-risk, high-reward research. ARISE suggests determining the policy or program success in attracting and funding new high-risk, high-reward research proposals and then evaluating the program or policy’s scientific outcomes ten years, or more, after its inception.
“We all agree there is an unmet need, but it is important that we clearly define our goals and metrics before we create new programs,” added Lipinski.
For more information, visit the Committee’s website.

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