A smarter approach to pandemic-era research funding

Smarter funding: More thought should be put into how research grants and business-development prizes are dispersed, according to master innovator Mitch Maiman.

It’s heartening to see both the business and charitable investments going into COVID-19 research.

I’m certain that the institutions and individuals making these investments want to see the money create the greatest impact possible. But is it?

Those who want their funding to have the most useful result should make sure they are funding an area where there is a unique need. I see money flowing into research in problem areas where there are solutions already in place and I see funding going into matters where there’s already so much redundant research that it’s just not useful for yet another team to do the same thing.

I’m not saying that the crisis doesn’t warrant parallel efforts to minimize time to a solution or even create multiple solutions. But it’s poor scientific communication – and at some point, it’s excessively wasteful.

At the same time, funders should make sure they’re putting enough critical mass into whatever research they do support. Taking a pot of money and splitting it across multiple projects – often, too small a pot for too many projects – means nobody gets enough to do anything useful.

Mitch Maiman: Place your bets.

You see it all the time in business-plan competitions that offer six- or even seven-figure prize packages, but give multiple winners on many levels a thin slice of the pie – reducing the business-building impact for each one.

I was inspired to read Innovate LI’s coverage of $398,200 in research funding Stony Brook University’s Office of the Vice President of Research has funneled into COVID-19 research over the last three months. But when you spread those funds across 17 projects (an average of $23,000 per project), you’re essentially paying for about two months of work – on projects “expected to be completed within a year.”

Here’s a metric for investors and donors to keep in mind: Unless the recipients are working for sweat equity (i.e. no compensation), basic compensation for just one engineer or healthcare professional on Long Island is between $10,000 and $20,000 a month. A $20,000 prize or grant may sound like a lot, but does it really move the ball forward to fund only one or two months of work on difficult problems?

I don’t want to discourage the funding of early-stage research projects. And there is definitely practical value in taking the small bets, which is safer – maybe even smarter – over the long haul, and can be useful in enticing others to make the further substantial investments needed to solve complex issues fast.

But it seems wasteful to throw too little money at a project to make a meaningful dent, especially when the problems are so complex. Betting the other way is always a higher risk – but in times like this, fewer and bigger bets may just be more useful.

Mitch Maiman is the cofounder and CEO of Hauppauge-based Intelligent Product Solutions, a subsidiary of Florida-based Forward Industries.