Respectful Insolence

Over the last couple of months, I’ve written periodically about cancer research and the complaints that the present system of funding grants and of peer review stifles innovation, as well as whether ideas for which there is some evidence but which fall out of the mainstream are given a fair shake. My overall take has been that, while the complaints have some merit, those making them tend to overstate their case dramatically. Either that, or their obvious agendas, such as making it easier to get funding for pseudoscience or rehabilitating the reputation of a crank, make it obvious that their real complaint about government grant funding or peer review is that it keeps their favored pseudoscience out. This is unfortunate, because there are indeed shortcomings in our present system that do tend to favor “safe” science over more radical ideas. Over the weekend, I came across a rather interesting idea to fund innovative ideas in cancer research:

A group of New York investors will award $1 million a year to the person with the “best idea” in cancer research — and the idea will be shared worldwide.

The “Gotham Prize” will encourage novel thinking and counter the competitive interests that can hinder progress, its creators said yesterday.

The first $1 million will be awarded next February. An advisory board that includes scientists from Harvard University, the Johns Hopkins University and the Cancer Institute of New Jersey will select the winners, who can use the money any way they choose.

“It’s going to encourage people to talk to each other and collaborate,” said Joseph R. Bertino, interim director of the cancer institute. “Well get out-of-the-box thinking.”

Organizers say the award is unique in the world of medical research. They will pre-qualify members, who will post their ideas and concepts on a Web site, www.gothamprize.org. Other researchers and scientists viewing the site can build on the ideas, or perhaps assist or collaborate on individual projects.

“We’re trying to encourage people to share their ideas. Even if four or five great ideas come out of this it will be worth it,” said Gary Curhan, a medical researcher and physician at Harvard Medical School. He created the prize with hedge fund managers Joel Greenblatt and Robert Goldstein of the private investment firm Gotham Capital in New York.

One aim is for the Web site to help foundations and companies discover ideas that need funding — and for scientists to find potential sources of money for their ideas.

Curhan said many good ideas do not get funded because researchers do not have enough preliminary data to attract government funding or because the ideas go against the grain.

Greenblatt said he and Goldstein, his partner, found similar ways to share ideas useful in the business world and thought the concept would work in medical research.

“Even people who don’t win but post their ideas may get some funding or they may get collaborators to help them,” Greenblatt said. The ideas can involve cancer prevention, causes, diagnosis or treatment.

I like this idea. Indeed, it’s not unlike the concept behind an NIH R21 award, which (allegedly) requires no preliminary data or an Army Idea Award, which also (allegedly) does require no preliminary data. The difference, is that it’s a lot more money, as an Idea Award is only $300,000 over three years, and an R21 is only a one year award of even less than that. One million dollars would, in fact, represent more money than the typical R01 grant, at least in direct costs that the researcher can access. (My R01, by comparison provides me $887,500 over five years in direct costs, although that number is shrinking yearly as the NIH lops 2-3% off the yearly budget in each successive year of the grant.)

My only quibble is that, if sufficient funding could be found, there should be different levels of this sort of award, depending upon the idea. Some ideas don’t need $1 million for a feasibility study, while others need more. In any case, depending upon how rigorous the peer review for these awards is (and I have little reason to doubt that the standards will be high, given that Joseph Bertino, Bert Vogelstein, and other luminaries are on the Advisory Board), it’s a good start.

Come to think of it, it would be rather interesting to see if Peter Duesberg would put his money where his mouth is and submitted a proposal based on his chromosomal aneuploidy hypothesis of cancer to compete for this year’s Gotham Prize, don’t you think This is the sort of mechanism that seems custom-designed for his idea.

Comments

  1. #2 daedalus2u
    May 27, 2007

    I see this as a waste of time.

    The criteria for membership is writing a 500-1000 word discription of the idea. If the idea is new, there is no way that 500-1000 words is enough to discribe it well enough to judge if it has merit or not. To give a feel for the size of that document, Orac’s post above has 769 words in it.

    “The idea may be for diagnosis, prevention, treatment or lead to a better understanding of etiology of cancer.”

    Pretty broad to pick just one “best” idea.

    I see this as a total crap shoot, with very long odds. Who ever wins, will be more by luck than by merit. If they get more than a few replies, they are going to have to triage them. They say

    “A detailed description of information that is readily available does not need to be included allowing you to focus on the key novel aspects of your idea.”

    Does that mean the reviewers will read everything that you cite? No, they will just assume that they know it (whether they do or not). If the idea doesn’t resonate with what the reviewers already believe (whether it is true or not), it will be DOA.

    Sorry I am being so negative, but having had so much trouble getting anyone to pay the slightest bit of attention to my nitric oxide stuff (which is all true and rock solid and is 100% consistent with everything in the literature) has made me more cynical than I used to be.

    They will get a lot of woo. When they triage out the woo, they will triage out most of the “far out” ideas too. What will be left will be pretty conventional. The kind of “normal science” that scientific peers know how to deal with.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Normal_science

    Peers don’t know how to deal with paradigm breaking science, as in Thomas Kuhn’s “the structure of scientific revolutions”.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Structure_of_Scientific_Revolutions

    To deal with paradigm breaking science, you have to be able to recognize which of the paradigms are wrong and need to be broken. You can’t explain why several paradigms of biology are wrong in 500-1000 words and be believed.

  2. #3 Locus Potus
    May 27, 2007

    To the previous poster-
    I agree that it will be difficult for the reviewers/experts to overcome their own biases, but I think you are being a little too harsh on a good attempt to rattle the cage, so to speak.

    I’m sure everyone is familiar with the original paper by Watson and Crick (in a “low-tier” journal) that was less than a page long describing the replicative/informational potential of DNA.

  3. #4 daedalus2u
    May 27, 2007

    The Watson and Crick paper wasn’t a paradigm breaking advance. It was known that there was some kind of information storage, it was known that it associated in genes, that there were two of them. Much of that had been known since Mendel.

    I am not minimizing how important it was, but no previous generally accepted model had to be thrown out.

    Paradigm breaking advances are things like the germ theory, evolution, the heliocentric model of the solar system, relativity, quantum mechanics. The new and the old paradigms are incommensurable. The new cannot be expressed in terms of the old.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commensurability_%28philosophy_of_science%29

    It isn’t what tier journal it is published in, much of what is published even in top tier journals is false.

    http://medicine.plosjournals.org/perlserv/?request=get-document&doi=10.1371/journal.pmed.0040028

    Scientific peers have a hard time distinguishing between what is plausible and false and what is true but not plausible. Usually they reject what is not plausible, even if it is true. If it fits the currrent paradigm, it is plausible. If it doesn’t fit the current paradigm, it isn’t plausible.

    If it isn’t plausible, it is an “extraordinary” claim, which requires “extraordinary” evidence. A plausible claim, even if it is wrong, requires only ordinary evidence.

  4. #5 Joe
    May 29, 2007

    @daedelus2u

    I have been a scientist for nearly 40 years, and I have seen a lot of breathtaking advances. I have never discussed “paradigms” with colleagues, that is philosophical mumbo-jumbo.

    In fact, the Watson-Crick paper was groundbreaking, among the most important discoveries of the last century. (And, locus pocus must have been kidding when (s)he said they published in a “low-tier” journal- it was in Nature.) When you don’t work in a field, it is often difficult to appreciate an advance.

  5. #6 daedalus2u
    May 29, 2007

    Joe, “I have never discussed “paradigms” with colleagues”. That is precisely the point. Paradigms are (to use a bad analogy), things that “eveyone” believes, but don’t talk about why they “believe” them. For some of them, that is because there is no good reason to believe them, just inertia.

    I can only think of one paradigm breaking advance in the past 50 years. The Helicobacter pylori mechanism for ulcers. Lots of other advances, and yes, even breath taking advances. But essentially nothing that was believed in 1950 has had to be thrown out.

    There are a number of paradigms that are wrong, for example “homeostasis”.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homeostasis

    A concept for which there is no valid theoretical or experimental explanation for, yet which many scientists believe. Why do they believe it? Because 75 years ago when it was first coined, there were no methods to measure anything going on inside a cell. For the most part, there are still no methods to do so non-destructively (and hence determine what is going on over time). With no ability to measure, with no clue as to what was going on, it was simply assumed (in complete error) that what ever was going on made everything “static”, that cells controlled their interiors to be “homeostatic”.

    A rudimentary analysis of homeostasis shows it to be false. For any control system to work, there must be deviation from a setpoint, then a compensatory response to adjust the parameters of the system to bring that deviation back to the control point. If we look at ATP concentration, it is exquisitly well controlled. It is better controlled than our ability to measure deviations from that control setpoint. We know it cannot be “static”, our inabilty to measure fluctuations must be due to the poor quality of our measuring systems.

    A PubMed search on homeostasis turns up 171,869 hits.

    What chance does a proposal have if it rejects homeostasis? What chance of publication does a manuscript have if it rejects homeostasis? What if rejecting the false notion of “homeostasis” is a necessary part of a new treatment for cancer? Any chance of it getting funding? Not in this funding climate.

  6. #7 Joe
    May 29, 2007

    Daedelus2u,

    You exhaust and confuse me. The discovery of extremophiles (organisms that live in conditions that were thought not to support life) certainly overturned “accepted ideas.” Confirmation of the Big Bang rocked astronomy. I could go on; but I hate philosophy- that is, deciding what overturns a “paradigm” and what is merely a great discovery. It doesn’t matter.

    As for homeostasis- huh? (Note, Wikipedia is not a reliable source of information.)

  7. #8 daedalus2u
    May 29, 2007

    It does matter. The germ theory shifted the default “cause” of disease from “evil spirits” to disease causing organisms. The hypothesis that “evil spirits” caused disease was abandoned and the new default hypothesis that disease was caused by infectious agents was adopted. The two hypotheses didn’t co-exist.

    The germ theory allowed for treatment modalities that could not be considered under the “evil spirit” paradigm, chemicals that would kill the germs, and not the host. Abandoning the evil spirit hypothesis meant abandoning treatments involving prayer, and other magical interventions.

  8. #9 Coin
    May 29, 2007

    daedalus2u, my understanding is that when the germ hypothesis first became widely accepted, the prevailing model of disease it overturned was not “evil spirits”, but miasmas, which were caused by poor sanitation and propagated through the air in a manner similar or identical to bad smells.

    I am also relatively certain that medical care in 1834, the year before the modern germ theory was first stated, was not primarily based on “prayer” or “magical interventions”.

  9. #10 Joe
    May 29, 2007

    Daedelus,

    Mark Twain noted something to the effect that “ignorance gives rise to more certainty than does knowledge.” Or, as a friend says, “If you can’t understand; maybe it’s you: http://www.apa.org/journals/features/psp7761121.pdf

    Worn out, I leave the field.

  10. #11 daedalus2u
    May 29, 2007

    Coin, you may be right. The point I was trying to make is that treatments based on the incorrect paradigm were not going to be effective. Treatments based on the “miasma” hypothesis, “evil spirits”, “law of similars” were not going to work either.

    The problem is, that work can be done within a paradigm, even if that paradigm is fundamentally wrong, for example Newtonian mechanics. From inside the paradigm (i.e. Newtonian mechanics), it isn’t always apparent that there is any problem. Astronomers were able to predict orbits with the Earth centered model, the predictions just were not that accurate without all these epicycles.

  11. #12 daedalus2u
    May 29, 2007

    Yes Joe, you are exactly right. If you are caught up in the wrong paradigm, you can’t see that it is wrong.