Monday, February 07, 2011

Feeding the Well-fed: Will It Produce the Results CIRM Wants?

Knoepfler Lab Graphic
It's pretty easy to tell where the sweet stuff is going when it comes to the California stem cell agency.

Take a quick look at CIRM's list of grants and their recipients. Stanford, UCLA and UC San Francisco top the list with $437 million out of the $1.2 billion the agency has handed out so far.

The agency has not blessed its fans yet with a list of individual scientists and their totals, but it would be a fair guess to say that the already shining stars of stem cell research are taking home most of the cash. Of course, there are notable exceptions to the magnetic attraction of the big guys and their academic homes.

The question arises, however: Is this really the best way to produce cures and develop breakthrough science? It is also a question that can be raised in connection with the NIH and other sources of funding for scientific research.

Feeding the already well-fed can mean starvation or least malnourishment of challengers who have fresh ideas that may not fit with the prejudices of the mainstream. And some of those challengers are likely to crack difficult issues and find solutions that have eluded those who may appear to be frontrunners.

This subject – sometimes called a positive feedback loop, otherwise known as "Them That Has Gets" – popped up in an item yesterday on the blog of UC Davis stem cell researcher Paul Knoepfler, a beneficiary of CIRM largess. The title of his item is "Stem cell monopoly: do not pass go, do not collect $200,000."

Without mentioning names of funding agencies, he dissects the general grant-making process and comes up with a recommendation for a change to create more bang for the taxpayer dollar, whether it comes from California or the NIH. Knoepfler wrote that the current system
" inherently biased to reward scientists who already have funding with more funding. It also rewards institutions that already have a lot of funding with even more funding.

"Any given grant application as a whole is viewed through the filter of who the applicant scientist is and where they are doing the research. This bias tends to concentrate research funding, giving certain people and places a disproportionate share of funding. 
"So one might ask 'if these scientists and institutions are the best, doesn’t it make sense that they should get more funding?'  The simple answer might be 'yes,' but if you dig deeper you realize that for the stem cell research field as a whole, the answer is 'no.'"
Knoepfler continued,
"Someone once said 'there is no monopoly on good ideas.' This is certainly true in the stem cell field and there is no monopoly on good science either. Well-funded people and places may have the best grantsmanship, but do not necessarily have the best ideas and are not necessarily the best equipped to do the science. Even so, funding agencies create an environment where certain institutions are rewarded with so much funding that virtual monopolies are created. In so doing the funding agencies end up with less diverse portfolios and lower their impact on the field."
Knoepfler argued that the first dollars make the biggest impact and that their effect drops sharply as a grant moves into its later years, a position that one scientist agreed with in a comment on the blog using himself as a case in point.

Knoepfler suggested a funding philosophy that would tilt towards greater "funding impact" as opposed to continuing to stuff the coffers of the already well-off.

Knoepfler's piece drew some interesting reaction on his blog. One person said Harvard and Stanford receive all the cash because they "are simply better and deserve more funding. Period." One reader, "WTF," went to the CIRM list that shows Stanford, UCLA and UC San Francisco at the top. But WTF went further and noted the next 11 institutions altogether have not received as much funding as the top three.

In the next few months, directors of the California stem cell agency will take up suggestions from the agency's external review panel that called for greater risk-taking and movement away from the traditional funding models. The issues raised by Knoepfler – who certainly reflects the thinking of many others in the field – deserve some careful examination during that process.


  1. Anonymous8:21 AM

    Knoepfler is right. One quick and easy solution would be for CIRM to remove investigator credentials and institutional support as criteria for discovery rounds such as Basic Biology.

    Then, the ideas might be more compelling and less reliance would be placed on reputations.

  2. Anonymous1:53 PM

    CIRM is very open about which investigators are funded and at what level. A press release is issued after each ICOC funding decision; these remain on the CIRM website. i.e.

    All the motivated blogger must do to find the totals is paste the data from the press releases into an excel file and sort by investigator and institution.


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