Recent reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act may do more than keep the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology on track to double their budgets by 2017. The bill could provide a more creative way to fund basic science and engineering research.
Embedded in the House version of the bill is the GENIUS Act, a prize competition aimed at "Generating Extraordinary New Innovations in the United States." Authored by Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) and Frank R. Wolf (R-VA), it calls for the NSF to sponsor a competition in which researchers would solve a basic science or engineering challenge that is hindering U.S. economic competitiveness. The act authorizes a total of $12 million for up to five prizes of at least $1 million each, in contests lasting up to seven years. No payments are made unless the goal is met. The NSF director will decide on challenge topics after consulting with experts in government, academia and industry. Once the funds are appropriated, the director has 18 months to announce the competition.
The America COMPETES (Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science) legislation, first passed in 2007, was a result of the National Academy of Sciences report, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm," which suggested a number of actions to keep the U.S. ahead in science and technology. The National Academy study recommended developing more prize competitions as adjuncts to the traditional federal agency grant programs in hopes of boosting innovation. "This approach was something we wanted to try as a pilot program to see what kind of success we could have," says Lipinski. "NSF has been doing a good job at trying to fund high-risk projects, and having a prize competition is another way to get at this issue." He notes that at times, grant reviewers tend to support research in which the outcome is known.
Innovative funding for biophotonics
One group that would like to see many more creative forms of funding is the Center for Biophotonics Science and Technology (CBST), located at the University of California, Davis Medical Center, Sacramento. Established in 2002, CBST is the only NSF science and technology center (S&T) devoted to biophotonics R&D. CBST's activities range from funding biophotonics research to working with small companies interested in commercializing biophotonics-related products. "One of the great things about the center is that we have a huge chunk of money from NSF that has very few strings attached, except to do great science," says Tod Stoltz, CBST's industry relations and business planning officer.
"We can fund research that nobody else would look at," adds Steve Lane, CBST chief scientific officer. The money CBST provides, grants of roughly $100,000 to $200,000, is often enough to allow a researcher to show proof of concept and then be ready to apply for a larger grant at NSF or NIH. One such case involves UC-Davis researcher Clark Lagarias an expert in plant proteins. Lagarias wanted to modify the proteins to create fluorescent tags for use in microscopy applications. Turned down by NIH a number of times, Lagarias turned to CBST. Over five years, Lagarias not only created fluorescent proteins, but also discovered that the mutation responsible for fluorescence could be manipulated to control plant behavior: by switching off a plant's shade-avoidance mechanism, plants can be grown in higher densities as well as non-native locations. "This finding was completely unintended," says Lane.
UC-Davis researchers introduced growth-altering red fluorescent proteins, created from naturally occurring plant photosensors, into tobacco plants (A). Fluorescence localization can be seen in the plants' roots (B).
Because CBST promotes a multidisciplinary rather than single-investigator research model, Lagarias collaborated with Susan Spiller at Mills College in Oakland, CA. Spiller developed a teaching research program that incorporates students from undergraduates to post-docs into the research process. She recently won an NSF grant to develop fluorescent tags to help understand the process of infection. Knowing how this process proceeds could help with development of new therapies.
In another project, UC-Davis researcher Laura Marcu and her research team has developed a laser probe for early detection of oral cancer. Using time-resolved fluorescence spectroscopy, the device detects and analyzes fluorescent light emitted from molecules within cancer cells. In a pilot study of patients who had surgery for mouth, throat and larynx cancer, the device successfully detected cancer cells in tumor margins, giving surgeons a tool to determine the location of healthy and diseased tissue.
Beyond the status quo
Supporting incremental steady progress through federal grant programs is important, but throughout the funding system, new approaches are needed to keep the enterprise fresh and to spur exponential growth. Researchers are expected to innovate as they turn theory into practice. The process often results in a novel device or technique that turns convention on its head.
Lipinski and Wolf's GENIUS Act reintroduces creativity into the funding mix, and the reauthorization of America COMPETES provides an opportunity to continue supporting innovation as only the U.S. can. "Funding it [America COMPETES] again in a way that would give the agencies time and flexibility in how those funds are handled would be a big boost to the country," says Stoltz.
At press time, the America COMPETES bill was awaiting Senate sponsorship and a vote on the floor. Senate staffers could not confirm a timeframe for a vote. Lipinski noted that the Senate may decide to wait until after the election to vote on the bill, but was hopeful "something could get done" in the lame duck session; "otherwise, we'll have to go back to square one with a new Congress."