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NSF Ideas Lab Turns the Scientific Grants Process on its Head

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NSF Ideas Lab Turns the Scientific Grants Process on its Head

Oct 22, 2015
Imagine being thrown together with a group of strangers and coming up with a fundable scientific proposal in less than a week. That’s the basic nuts and bolts of the National Science Foundation Ideas Lab, a relatively new mechanism for encouraging big thinking in science and out-of-the box interdisciplinary collaborations. Interesting idea, but does it work? Matt Wachowiak, Ph.D., USTAR professor of neurobiology and anatomy at the University of Utah relays his experience, and his views on whether this will become the norm for scientific funding.

Episode Transcript

Interviewer: The National Science Foundation's Ideas Lab turns the grants process on its head. We'll talk about that next on The Scope.

Announcer: Examining the latest research and telling you about the latest breakthroughs. The Science and Research show is on The Scope.

Interviewer: I'm talking with Dr. Matt Wachowiak, a USTAR professor of neurobiology and anatomy at the University of Utah. I had never heard of the National Science Foundations Ideas Workshop.

Dr. Wachowiak: I had never heard of it either. None of the people that were at this workshop in the end had heard of it. Basic idea is that you bring a number of people together who have applied and were selected based on their interest in collaborating with others and approaching big problems, but not necessarily based on preliminary proposals.

You bring these folks together into a week-long intense workshop in which the goal is to form collaborative teams who are going to approach big high-impact questions using an interdisciplinary team driven approach.

This particular workshop was focused on olfactory coding, Cracking the Olfactory Code was the title of it. The major goal was to really understand how the nervous system encodes information about odors, how the brain processes odor information.

The NSF really decided to dedicate a lot of resources to this. They had set aside between $12 to $16 million to fund several groups which would come out of this workshop to tackle this problem. So we've been in a number of these Ideas Lab workshops for different areas.

Interviewer: And at the end, it's not that they award the money right then, but if you're successful you're invited to submit a proposal right?

Dr. Wachowiak: That's right.

Interviewer: Let's talk about the funding mechanism. This was a very, at least when I heard about it, it just seemed very unusual and like nothing I had ever heard before. What is an example of maybe the most surprising or oddest exercise you had to do?

Dr. Wachowiak: Well yeah, it was a very surprising mechanism you know. The idea was that we went to this workshop without any preconceived notions about what we would do as a project and we were actually given no agenda ahead of time in terms of what was going to happen at this workshop.

We didn't know who was going to be there in advance and of course we were supposed to, eventually, form groups with other investigators. So that was kind of interesting to go into the whole thing from the beginning.

I think the most interesting example of exercises was we had to very early on form our own little countries. We had to talk to everybody else and find people that we identified with in terms of how we approached science and how we define questions in the general field of olfaction.

So we had to meet other people, put ourselves in a certain sort of territory, give our country a name, give it a motto, define what our imports and exports are, things like that.

Interviewer: What was the name and motto of yours?

Dr. Wachowiak: Identestan or something. So we're interested in understanding how the nervous system encodes the identity of odors and what our exports were. What we produce for other people, we produce obviously information and data that other people can test with models. Our imports are techniques that we get from other people who are developing those things and hypotheses.

In other words, basically kind of a scientific speed dating exercise. You spend two minutes with a person, find out what they work on, try to identify a project that the two of you can work on together and describe what that would be within a couple of minutes.

Interviewer: What do you think the purpose is of those types of projects were?

Dr. Wachowiak: A lot of these exercises, and that was just one. We did many different kinds of exercises. But I think a lot of them were aimed at breaking down barriers to communication. Getting people out of their comfort zone and broadening the way they think about science. I mean, as scientists, we tend to spend a lot of energy focusing on problems in a fairly narrow way and you have to have something to disrupt that way of thinking.

So a lot of it was aimed at that, getting people to think big without doubting whether they might be able to approach these problems. Also just learn about what expertise other people have to bring to the table.

Interviewer: At the end of the workshop, what was the end product?

Dr. Wachowiak: The end product of the workshop itself was really a 12 minute talk. We were all joking while we were there, I mean this was really like a reality TV show.

Interviewer: Because all the program officers were watching you do this whole thing too, right? Probably taking notes.

Dr. Wachowiak: Oh yeah, right. So there were program officers and there was a panel, a review panel of scientists who were brought in really to review those preliminary proposals. One thing that was interesting about that is they also served as mentors throughout the week.

A lot of that week was devoted to forming groups, generating ideas and so not really developing specific proposals and that phase of developing a specific proposal with a specific group of people really just lasted probably 48 hours.

Interviewer: Something that usually takes months right?

Dr. Wachowiak: And about 40 hours of that time, everyone was awake and working hard, so it was quite intense.

Interviewer: What did you think about all this? What's your lasting impression?

Dr. Wachowiak: When you're developing a big project in a very, very short time, you can always look back and think, "Well maybe if we had more time or had the chance to bring in more people into this project, it could have been even more successful."

So I think in that sense, it's still probably an experiment. It was definitely I would say kind of the most intense professional experience I've had in my career and so that was really just personally, it was a great experience to go through that and see what comes out at the end.

It's a great mechanism to generate ideas and to get people potentially working together that might not otherwise and I think that sort of process can work in a lot of different contexts. I think it's great, for example, for developing ideas internally in a context let's say of a retreat or something like that within an institution. It can work in a lot of different ways and so that was really one of the things that I took away from that.

Announcer: Interesting, informative and all in the name of better health. This is The Scope Health Sciences Radio.

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