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Risky Business

A panel of researchers made a case for funding "high risk, high reward" research during a recent hearing of the U.S. House Science and Technology Subcommittee on Research and Science Education. The panelists told the subcommittee that grant proposals for funding agencies do not give researchers the freedom to pursue such projects, and they often lack the funding to investigate a potential return on the investment. The scientists said lawmakers should consider requiring federal agencies to set aside some grant funding for high risk research.

"Breakthroughs often occur as total surprises,” said Rice University professor Neal Lane. "The research that was being done may strike us as somewhat routine, somewhat dull, and suddenly there's a surprise that comes out of the research."

The panelists also said the agencies could provide money to promising investigators with no strings attached, which is the model used by the MacArthur "genius" grants and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. "We're not going to tell you what to do with the money," said the Hughes Institute's Gerard Rubin of the model. "We're betting on you as an individual, and we're going to win or lose that bet."

Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-Ill.) said the pending re-authorization of the National Science Foundation and competitiveness legislation would offer opportunities for strengthening funding for riskier projects.

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