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Rethinking Funding for Scientific Innovation

By Matthew Bauer

Academic science laboratories typically survive by applying for private- and government-funded grants. This model of funding scientific innovation is being flipped on its head with the creation of the Arc Institute in Palo Alto.

Research labs no longer need to apply for highly competitive processes for grants. Instead, the Arc Institute aims to put science first, by funding its scientific investigators’ salaries and research costs for 8 years.

What do the current funding programs for academic laboratories look like?

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is the largest funder of public biomedical research, with a budget of nearly 32 billion dollars per year. The NIH funds the study of foundational research, breakthrough medical treatments, and more.

The NIH allocates funding by offering grants to researchers. Researchers must apply for project-specific funding. Researchers can search for grants, put together an application regarding how they would forward the NIH grants missions with their science. Grant applications undergo two rounds of review, and then researchers find out if they are funded months later. If successful, the projects are funded for several years.

Historically, receiving NIH grants is a challenging endeavor for many laboratories. A standard independent grant given by the NIH, called a R01, has only a 20% success rate for applicants. On top of this competitive grant process, research costs are increasing. This forces researchers to seek more grants and increasingly rely on these sources to keep their laboratories running.

Outside of seeking NIH funding, laboratories can find funding from university startup packages that are offered to new faculty, in efforts to help get their labs up and running initially. Other potential funding sources are philanthropic donations, for example, the Gates Foundation. Additionally, private industry, which can form sponsored research agreements with academic laboratories is an increasing source of funding in recent years. Lastly, government research grants, such as those within the Department of Defense, can fund some research in academic laboratories that is within the interests of the military.

All together, these approaches fund a majority of academic laboratories, but also come with significant strings attached. Constantly looking for grant funding can shape research goals away from an investigator’s original scientific goals and more towards what funders tend to award grants for. This can also be observed in some sponsored research agreements, in which private industry goals may be the driving force for research directions. These research funding systems do not always lead to curiosity-driven exploration of scientific projects.

What makes Arc Institute so different?

Arc Institute is founded on the idea that removing as many of the drawbacks of the traditional research funding paradigm as possible will yield accelerated scientific progress.

Disconnecting from grant writing, rapid publication cycles, single author credit systems, and project-based timelines can free researchers to pursue their best ideas with fewer external factors swaying them.

To get this done, Arc Institute has partnered with Stanford University, UC Berkeley and UCSF: tenured faculty at those institutions can apply to Arc for one of a number of open-ended project goals. If selected, they relocate to the Arc Institute research center in Palo Alto, California to carry out research with none of the traditional strings attached to grants and other funding systems.

Arc Institutes also aims to fill a critical gap largely overlooked within traditional academic laboratories – maintaining long-term know-how and expertise. In traditional academic laboratories, every 4-5 years, graduate students and postdocs transition into non-academic roles in industry and take with them this expertise. Arc plans to retain these scientists that would leave for industry by compensating them with competitive salaries and benefits – something that is usually a mainstay of industry science.

A last pillar of the Arc Institute’s model is freeing researchers from the need to publish academic papers on deadlines with grants. Scientists are sometimes pressured into getting a paper into press before the next grant application cycle. Removing this pressure may allow scientists to be more open-ended with their research goals. While this model isn’t to say publishing scientific findings is second, it does allow more freedom for the science to be shaped by the researchers and not external pressures from grant and journal deadlines.

Arc seeks to establish an environment that puts science first and brings together diverse scientists.

Future directions of research funding

While Arc Institute is just launching and recruiting its first set of researchers, it is a hopeful model to help scientists focus on their work, rather than the funding sustaining it.

It is only in time that we will be able to tell if these long-sighted models of science funding will yield true breakthrough research. Some other types of private funding, such as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a private research foundation, sponsor a number of investigators in academic laboratories over longer periods of time. However, these funding systems are still just one source of support to these laboratories, many of which still require typical grant mechanisms to survive.

As scientific research projects get larger and research challenges become more collaborative, funding structures should change to meet the needs of scientists, and, ultimately, patients.


Matt Bauer is a PhD student in the Harvard Biological and Biomedical Sciences program. His research currently focuses on developing genomic tools for infectious disease surveillance.

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