Our current system for funding research is broken.

Though that may not be the position of the University, as it’s now launching an innovative alternative called MCubed that may provide a direction for change.

The way academia powers forward, claiming new victories daily, obscures the rough edges of the current paradigm. Let me recall for you the saga of scientific misconduct by Marc Hauser, the Harvard University evolutionary biologist — not to further tarnish his name — but to bring some of those edges to light.

Hauser was studying the ability of tamarin monkeys to learn algebraic rules and in 2002 published results in Cognition — a journal that publishes research about the study of the mind — that supported his hypothesis. To establish patterns in the monkeys’ behavior, his team watched video of the monkeys’ behavior and coded the monkeys’ actions.

After some questions arose concerning Hauser’s data and his refusal to let his lab colleagues recode his tapes, his research assistants recoded the data without his consent. Their data looked nothing like his. Coding behavior is somewhat subjective, but what they found prompted further investigation because the data was so different. In the end, Hauser was found guilty of eight counts of scientific misconduct and resigned from his position at Harvard in 2011.

Hauser could just be a bad apple, but from an outsider’s view, academia appears to promote such “bad behavior.”

Whenever I curl up with a new issue of some bleeding edge scientific journal (which I assure you isn’t often, I have a life…), I’m always struck by the fact that hypotheses are always confirmed. I haven’t yet run across a peer-reviewed article that says, “We thought this would happen, but this happened instead.” I don’t think it’s because scientists are always dead-on with their intuition. It’s just that there is no room in contemporary journals for negated hypotheses.

Journals, funding agencies and research institutions don’t seem to think that results of failed experiments are worth sharing. So Hauser’s hypothesis would have to have been confirmed — otherwise, all his team’s efforts would have been for naught.

But how did he even get to that point — to have a hypothesis that was essential to support? Herein lies the problem inherent to how research funding operates: In order to be awarded money for a grant proposal, your hypothesis needs to be well on the way to being proved correct.

The key concept undergirding our current system is that competition creates better results. Hence, we have the X PRIZE Foundation, the DARPA Robotics Challenge and National Science Foundation receiving 40,000 proposals each year and only funding 11,000. To succeed in these races, principal investigators must do their homework. This means that in most cases, researchers apply for smaller grants first, usually from their home institution. Likely, some significant portion of the University’s $1.24 billion it spent on research in the fiscal year of 2011 went to projects of this type.

This means that by the time you even receive a federal grant for your idea, you’ve already invested money and months of time into gathering preliminary supporting data. All of this makes it increasingly “necessary” for their careers that their hypotheses are correct. Otherwise, all that work can be scrapped and shelved.

These incentives thus encourage explorations that are narrow and one more step on what’s already been done. They make taking baby steps the prevailing paradigm. Ever heard of the “least publishable unit?” The really big leaps that we need to take to solve big problems aren’t safe to take in this environment. Furthermore, solutions to these problems often lie strewn across the borders of multiple disciplines and funding for interdisciplinary research is even harder to come by.

So, that’s the stage upon which MCubed, a part of the University’s Third Century Initiative, will enter in the fall.

MCubed, instead of taking a merit-based approach to funding, will hand $60,000 to any three researchers from at least two different units who agree to work together on a project. The only approval for the ideas will be mutual interest in the questions asked. It appears that all schools, colleges and departments in the university will be participating, providing an unprecedented opportunity for cross-disciplinary explorations. The money can be used to hire a postdoctoral researcher, graduate student or an undergraduate to work with the team of three.

In a creative — and playful — move, interested faculty will be given a token that’s a third of a cube and represents $20,000. They can only cash out the $60,000 when they’ve agreed to work with two others and the pieces of the cube are combined. Faculty will meet and toss around ideas on a web platform that will launch in the fall.

In addition to the $15 million the program will infuse into University research, the initiative is also an experiment in itself. The Institute for Social Research faculty will observe the collaborations formed and the impact of the results of this program. MCubed could fall flat or be a beacon guiding academia away from asking questions that we almost know the answer to, to ones that currently have us scratching our head. We wait with bated breath.

Michael Smallegan can be reached at smallmic@umich.edu.

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