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Beyond “anecdata”: peering into the future of research funding

Representatives from government and private-sector funding agencies share challenges and insights at Research Funders Summit

David Stepp, PhD, Acting Director of the US Army Research Office (ARO), introduces his presentation on the Portfolio Analysis panel as moderator Lesley Thompson, PhD, Elsevier’s VP of Academic Relations, looks on. (Photos by Alison Bert)
David Stepp, PhD, Acting Director of the US Army Research Office (ARO), introduces his presentation on the Portfolio Analysis panel as moderator Lesley Thompson, PhD, Elsevier’s VP of Academic Relations, looks on. (Photos by Alison Bert)

At a conference for the research funding community, one slide caused people to take pause: a young boy in oversized combat boots heading a unit of soldiers.

“Now before everyone freaks out, I’m not advocating for children in the military,” Dr. David Stepp assured the audience. Rather, as Acting Director of the Army Research Office (ARO) in the US Department of Defense, he was illustrating his organization’s mission: “extending the frontiers of science.”

As an academic researcher working at the forefront of science, think about the kid in the front. Because today, if you can give me some revolutionary breakthrough, some unprecedented property, something totally different, something we've never seen before – by the time that kid becomes a soldier, we can help him. That's what we do.

Supporting researchers early in their careers was a recurrent theme in this meeting, along with finding – and funding – the next great breakthrough and research that will have a meaningful impact on society.

Of course, measuring the impact of research is no simple task, especially when allocating millions of dollars to multi-year projects across many fields, each with its own idiosyncrasies. Measuring research productivity and forecasting trends calls for increasingly sophisticated tools and methods – and that was at the heart of the conversation the Research Funders Summit October 16 and 17, hosted by Elsevier.

About 120 people gathered in Rockville, Maryland, outside our nation’s capital, to discuss key aspects of research funding, including evaluating research programs and their impact; proposal review and portfolio analysis; open science and reproducibility; cross-agency collaboration and the importance of a diverse workforce. Funders covered a wide range of research disciplines, from STEM to social sciences and humanities. More than half the attendees were from government funding agencies, while others came from private and nonprofit funders, evaluation bodies, and universities. They traveled from Canada, Germany, Japan, the UK and many parts of the US to provide an international perspective and consider similarities and differences facing funders around the world.

Dominic Feltham, President of Research at Elsevier“What is striking is the extent to which we’re all using data, technology and increasingly more sophisticated analytics to really improve the information system and research overall,” said Dominic Feltham, President of Research at Elsevier. “This is an incredible opportunity we all have.”

Humor mingled with intellect as conversations spanned the gamut of scientific and medical research, economics, data science and bibliometrics. For many participants, working across these domains is normal and necessary.

The event was a unique forum for thought leaders and dedicated professionals in the research funding community, who don’t have many opportunities to share knowledge across disciplines, sectors and agencies. “Perhaps for the first time, program, policy, evaluation, and review leaders from a wide range of private and public funders are together to network, listen and learn from each other,” said Dr. Brad Fenwick, Elsevier’s SVP for Global Strategic Alliances. “We recognize the importance of what you do and the increasing complexity of doing it well.”

Speakers delved into the intricacies involved in deciding what research to fund and how to measure its impact.

Kari Wojtanik, PhD, of Susan G. Komen speaks on the Evaluating Research panel.

“I think a lot of organizations struggle with this question, said Dr. Kari Wojtanik, Senior Manager of Evaluation & Outcomes for Susan G. Komen, the largest nonprofit funder of breast cancer research outside of the US government:

Part of the issue is that the metrics we have to measure this impact are really just proxy measures; they center around what we often refer to as institutional outcomes. … So we wanted to start thinking about ways we could develop feasible metrics that could help us measure things around societal outcomes – what is the impact to health or policy? – those research results that are really practice-changing.

“The intellectual and practical efforts to understand, assess and improve impact are pretty much in their infancy,” keynote speaker Dr. Daniel Sarewitz, Professor and Co-Director of the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes at Arizona State University. When gauging the value and social impact of science, he explained, we need to go beyond simplistic categories like “basic versus applied” and familiar quantitative measures like number of publications and patents or monetary ROI.

Forecasting the future of research was the focus of M'hamed el Aisati’s presentation. Elsevier’s VP of Funding Content & Analytics demonstrated a new model for predicting trending research applying Elsevier’s Topics of Prominence to research funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

M’hamed el Aisati talks about Elsevier’s new predictive analytics solution.

It’s based on large datasets of research output, advanced leading indicators and innovative statistical clustering techniques, Aisati explained, pointing out that prominence refers to momentum: “Where there is momentum there is more activity and potentially more than can happen.”

He began by showing common challenges faced by researchers, institutions and funders:

Researchers, institutions and funders share some common challenges.

Based on the questions delegates asked, and conversation during networking breaks, it’s was clear they found many commonalities.

Anna Wetterberg, PhD, a social science researcher who manages RTI Press, said she was taken by how funders grapple with many of the same challenges as research institutions.

Dr. Anna Wetterberg a social science researcher who manages RTI Press in North Carolina, said this was the first time she had been to a conference dedicated to the funders’ perspective, and she was surprised at how much it related to her own work – like having to show impact for the funding they receive. “These are all the things we’re struggling with, but we’re looking at it from a research institute and publishing perspective,” she said. “But we rarely get an opportunity to hear about it from funders’ perspectives — how they’re finding different approaches to facing the same challenges.”

Editor’s note: In the coming months, we will be publishing stories focusing on topics covered by the presenters.

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