Recent Research: Examining effective policies to support high-risk/high-reward research

June 24, 2021
By: Connor LaVelle

High-risk/high-reward research can yield breakthroughs, produce new technologies, and allow the surrounding region to remain economically relevant. However, the scientific community remains concerned that research and development-focused policies, both in the U.S. and elsewhere, continue to be conservative with their goals by only encouraging incremental growth that can yield tangible results in shorter amounts of time. These concerns, and potential policy solutions, are explored in a recently published research paper by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Effective Policies to Foster High Risk/High Reward Research, authored by an international group selected by the Global Science Forum, examines the current policy environment, notes the roadblocks to supporting high-risk/high-reward research, and investigates what can be done to provide long term support for high-risk/high-reward projects.

To build their analysis of high risk/high reward funding policies, the authors began by reviewing existing literature that explored both high risk/high reward program funding as well as broader research investment policies. Following the review of previous writings, the authors began to develop a global inventory of existing high risk/high reward funding programs, including the National Institute of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency as examples of high risk/high reward programs active within the United States. The authors then surveyed the identified programs, aiming to identify the selection criteria funding organizations use when selecting research projects and gauging their success in investing in high risk/ high reward research.

When considering what impedes the creation of stronger high-risk/high-reward research policies, the authors make note of three core issues. They point out that many research funding agencies spend public money and as such policymakers feel a need to show promising results and breakthroughs with a quick turnaround to justify their financing. Scientific review panels also were found to be more likely to reward projects that seem more feasible than those that have a higher level of risk. Third, external interests from influential organizations and individuals may lead to an undermining of more innovative, and potentially disruptive, research projects.

To help address these issues, the authors present a series of recommendations to help government policymakers, research funders, and research-performing institutions better support high-risk/high-reward research. These include:

  • Encouraging research funders to experiment with both new and existing approaches to support high-risk/high-reward research.
  • Implementing a ‘portfolio approach’ in the management and evaluation of high-risk/high-reward research, allowing for better risk management while simultaneously providing incentives for funders and researchers to take high-reward risks.
  • Encouraging research institutions, funding managers, and policymakers to adopt contextual policies, such as adopting a long-term vision and redesigning evaluation/promotion policies that allow for researchers to engage in high-risk/high-reward works.
  • Rigorous evaluation of current high-risk/high-reward research programs, exploring their social, economic, and scientific impacts while also analyzing their role in encouraging the development of future high-risk research-supporting policies.
  • Developing indicators for better evaluating the riskiness of projects to assist in impact evaluations of high-risk/high-reward research.
  • Encouraging research funders to collect and share their data on high-risk/high-reward research to allow for comparison to more traditional research programs.

As state and local policymakers continue to look for how best to encourage STEM research and innovation within their regions, OECD’s recently released research report may serve as an inspiration for decision makers to reevaluate what research projects can receive funding and how research and development success is measured.

The full OECD report, Effective Policies to Foster High Risk/High Reward Research, may be found here.

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