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Thoughts from David Glanzman (UCLA) on high-risk research
David Glanzman is Professor, Integrative Biology And Physiology and Professor, Neurobiology, at UCLA.
Glanzman has done extensive work with the Aplysia — in his words in a well-regarded 2014 paper, “reflexes of a sea slug known as Aplysia are often used to study memory because it has a simple nervous system in which individual sensory neurons (which detect changes) only form synapses with single motor neurons (which control muscles).” In that paper, he and his lab showed that “long-term memory could be restored after these treatments [to disrupt synapses], which supports that idea that memory does not depend on synapses between the neurons being maintained.” That finding was extended in a 2015 Science paper out of Susumu Tonegawa’s lab.
I was intrigued enough to manually transcribe some of his remarks on trying to get outside-the-box research funded even after a top publication:
Several years ago, my laboratory published a paper, and in this paper, we claimed that we were able to transfer memory from one organism to another by an injection of RNA. And our experimental organism was the marine snail aplysia shown here. And by way of background, many of you know that the current idea about how memories are stored is that when an animal or an organism learns something, there are changes in the strength of synaptic connection, and those changes – the restructuring of the synaptic connections – is thought to encode the memory.
I’ve been in this field of learning/memory for 35 years (about), and for 30 of those years I believed in that model implicitly.
But this model – what I published suggested that model is either incorrect or deficient in some significant way.
Well, the paper got tons of attention in the press . . . this paper is in the top 5% of all research output scored by Altmetric. It’s got the most attention of any paper ever published in the journal eNeuro. Compared to outputs of the same age, it’s in the 99th percentile. . . . I’m not bragging, but this is the reality.
OK, so when I published this paper, I thought, “Gee, I’m set. I’m not going to have to worry any more about funding, etc.”
Well, this turned out to be wildly incorrect. So, in fact when I published the paper I had two NIH R01s, and an NSF. And when I went to renew those R01s to fund the research on RNA and memory, I did not get funded.
Not only did I not get funded, but for the first time in my life, my grant proposals were triaged. I submitted 5 or 6 grant proposals, they were all triaged. . . .
My lab contracted enormously. And I started thinking about this experience, and I thought, you know, whenever you apply to a funding agency, they always say “we want creative, outside-the-box thinking.”
So they tell you that they want proposals like this [gesturing with the left hand]. But what I learned is in fact, what they really want are proposals like this [gesturing with the right hand]. If you go outside-the-box, they’re going to run the other way screaming.
Like so many similar stories, Glanzman’s experience suggests that we need to think about how to overhaul peer review and grantmaking decisions so that more outside-the-box ideas can get funding.
Thanks to Gaurav Venkataraman for comments and background information.