NIH funding and the pursuit of edge science

PNAS – Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
[Accessed 23 May 2020]


NIH funding and the pursuit of edge science
Mikko Packalen and Jay Bhattacharya
PNAS first published May 19, 2020.
Innovative research is critical to the advancement of biomedicine. The NIH plays a crucial role in fostering innovation. An empirical assessment of the success of the NIH in this role is an essential step in identifying ways to encourage novel research. This research introduces a measure of the age of the ideas used in published biomedical research papers and comprehensively evaluates the performance of NIH-supported research relative to non-NIH-supported research, using this measure.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) plays a critical role in funding scientific endeavors in biomedicine. Funding innovative science is an essential element of the NIH’s mission, but many have questioned the NIH’s ability to fulfill this aim. Based on an analysis of a comprehensive corpus of published biomedical research articles, we measure whether the NIH succeeds in funding work with novel ideas, which we term edge science. We find that edge science is more often NIH funded than less novel science, but with a delay. Papers that build on very recent ideas are NIH funded less often than are papers that build on ideas that have had a chance to mature for at least 7 y. We have three further findings. First, the tendency to fund edge science is mostly limited to basic science. Papers that build on novel clinical ideas are not more often NIH funded than are papers that build on well-established clinical knowledge. Second, novel papers tend to be NIH funded more often because there are more NIH-funded papers in innovative areas of investigation, rather than because the NIH funds innovative papers within research areas. Third, the NIH’s tendency to have funded papers that build on the most recent advances has declined over time. In this regard, NIH funding has become more conservative despite initiatives to increase funding for innovative projects. Given our focus on published papers, the results reflect both the funding preferences of the NIH and the composition of the applications it receives.