How can translational researchers face down funding and reproducible result challenges?

Researcher-using-a-multi-pipet-35766563Two days into a government shutdown over resulting from the Congressional showdown over funding Obamacare, funding is at the front of mind for many researchers who rely at least partially on grants from National Institutes of Health and other government sources. A survey of 608 translational researchers revealed that although insufficient funding is a significant barrier to the path to commercializing their work, there are other related challenges that are just as critical to their future.

How can translational researchers improve the rate of reproducible results? What other factors are undercutting funding? Where can they find collaboration opportunities?

The American Association for the Advancement of Science, its publication, Science, and Sigma-Aldrich conducted the survey online in a random sample of these researchers who are employed by academic and nonprofit institutions.

The majority of participants were based in North America (49 percent) and Europe (24 percent) as well as the Asia-Pacific region and Australia (20 percent). Graduate students dominated (23 percent) followed by post-doc (19 percent) all levels of professors (17 percent), principal investigators (17 percent) and researchers and staff scientists (14 percent).


Although insufficient funding is the most significant barrier to progress in translational research cited by 62 percent of participants, many also called attention to lack of interdisciplinary training (33 percent) and an unclear path to creating successful commercial partnerships (33 percent) as adding to the funding shortcomings.

To ensure that their research was perceived as reproducible, survey respondents were most willing to make changes inside their labs and less willing to seek outside help. Only three percent of respondents were unwilling to make any changes

“Scientists may need to be more agile in the way they seek funding. This also presents new challenges as the demands for NIH grants and long-term pharmaceutical company interests are not the same,” the report observed.

Building partnerships with business schools as a way to help translational scientists get into a commercial mindset was a view supported by more than 60 percent of respondents. The trouble is that only 13 percent actually do that. Only 12 percent said they did not have a business school so that leaves a lot of questions as to what’s getting in the way of more collaboration.

Reproducibility and quality issues have been widely cited as barriers to drug development, according to the report. Other publications and reports have called attention to the problem (here, here and here). Even though their work has a direct impact on health, there was a major split on whether translational researchers should be held to a higher research standard than other scientists. About 44 percent agreed that they should but 45 percent said no. Still 97 percent said they would be receptive to change depending on whether it came from within the lab or using outside advisers, which got less support. Here are some of the suggestions that would be supported.

  • Having another lab reproduce findings                         — 50 percent
  • Obtain outside expert statistical analysis                      — 46 percent
  • Perform rigorous quality controls, including repeats — 71 percent
  • Ensure thorough documentation                                     –67 percent
  • Follow Good Laboratory Practices                                  — 67 percent
  • Use standardized or validated reagent                            –55 percent
  • Increase sample size                                                           — 54 percent

It’s a significant issue and it could eventually impact funding.

“With increasing concern over reproducibility and budgets squandered on unverifiable science, the [National Institutes of Health] may soon require researchers to validate the results and protocols in grant applications. This requirement would force many applicants to amend the fundamentals of their research process, from the way data are recorded to the types of reagents that are use…”

Universities are taking a variety of approaches to improving collaboration. University of Pennsylvania’s UpStart program partners researchers with the entrepreneurs in the Philadelphia region. Drexel University earlier this year launched a venture fund as part of a university wide effort to support entrepreneurship including with its biomedical engineering school, to name a few.

 [Photo credit: Researcher using a multi pipette from BigStock Photos]

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