By Eleni Tsigas
What could the future of science hold if innovation were prized over conventional wisdom? In this recent TEDMed talk, Roberta Ness, vice president for innovation at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and James W. Rockwell professor in public health at the School of Public Health, discusses a radical idea to shake up the scientific process that she contends has stymied the creativity that science discovery so desperately needs.
In this 15-minute talk, Ness shares her personal experience with preeclampsia research as an important case study where her research was unfundable because it was such a crazy idea; it took years for others to catch up and today we know without a doubt that preeclampsia is linked to cardiovascular health. This way of thinking about research is at the core of the Preeclampsia Foundation’s Vision Grants – designed to provide seed money to young investigators with novel ideas. The focus is on “novel”, meaning “new or unusual in an interesting way.” This seed funding allows them to conduct the pilot studies needed to gather the basic data needed to go on and secure larger grants from “safe bet” funders. Under the Vision Grant program, even disproven hypotheses provoke new ideas and allow for course correcting in the early stages of a novel idea. We are still several weeks out from announcing our 2016 Vision Grant winners, but a review of our previous winners – with a look at where their careers and cool ideas have gone – demonstrates a predictable mix of fizzles and wins. As it should.
The Dallas News printed an interesting Q&A with Dr. Ness last year that summarizes the theme she has explored in several published books: As research funders look to make prudent investments, big-name institutions can look like a safe bet while smaller, more nimble labs lose out. As money and power get concentrated, the aims of scientists can actually shift from major breakthroughs to incremental, but more reliable, short-term progress.
I’ve had the pleasure of working alongside Dr. Ness in our role as a member of the Global Pregnancy Collaborative, a consortium funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and continue to be excited by the ideas she has posed for The Preeclampsia Registry – the dynamic research database that we launched in late 2013 and which has grown steadily since then. With the ever present need to fundraise, it’s sometimes hard for charities like the Preeclampsia Foundation to hold on to our core value of being “bold” but with innovators like Dr. Ness working with us, I’m encouraged that we will continue to be leaders in this field.
Working scientists, what do you think? Are you pushing the boundaries of innovation or stymied by a system that only rewards safe hypotheses? Is that what’s holding back great discoveries in preeclampsia? Feel free to shoot me your thoughts.