The scientific discourse has been abuzz with the ongoing discussion on young scientists and health investigators and the challenges they face. With the growing unpredictability of the economic climate, the biomedical research budget is shrinking every day. Both early-career investigators and established scientists are facing the worsening funding crisis, the hardest hit, however, are the health investigators pursuing careers in health-related research.
The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) has highlighted the need for promoting a conducive environment of comprehensive structural support for health investigators. Keeping with the tradition, the National Institute of Health (NIH) has taken the lead in establishing policy changes in order to facilitate investigator-initiated research in an era of a contracting economy.
In times of crisis, the NIH is ensuring that the young scientists get the assurance of concrete institutional support. In addition to key policy change and implementation, educational institutions must provide basic awareness and training on the importance of balancing the benefits to all the stakeholders.
While scientific inquiry, biomedical research, in particular, has come a long way in the last few decades, we have a long uncharted path ahead of us. To that end, we must court youth aspiring toward basic or applied research with ever greater incentives. In this article, we are going to explore the biggest challenges faced by health investigators, with an intent to amplify problems as well as solutions.
However, we must first learn to distinguish between pure and/or basic research and applied research, for that is where the first major problems stem from.
Applied Research & Basic Research
Let us establish the main difference between the types of fundamental research, for it resolves the premise of understanding from the onset.
Basic research provides scientists with the very foundation of knowledge to enable applied research. As the Nobel Prize winner, Dr. George F. Smoot famously said: “People cannot see the future well enough to predict what is going to be developed from basic research. If we only did apply research, we would still be making better spears”. You do basic research in order to come up with a new theory or law; you get to support or debunk existing principles. When you analyze Dr. Smoot’s analogy of the spear, you appreciate the fact that it is the very basic nature of human curiosity that directs research into physical and natural laws, which in turn governs the moving objects and sets basic rules for weapons applications defined by the principles of applied research.
Sir Isaac Newton had put his thoughts on basic research in such a simple yet profound manner when he said: “if I have seen further, it has been by standing on the shoulders of giants.” If you prefer, it is basic research that gives birth to applied research. (Alpert, 2014).
To put it simply, you carry out applied research on the grounds laid out by basic research. Let us consider cancer; for instance, when you encounter a problem, you research an applicable solution. The conceptual idea of applied research is to transform existing research theories into the discovery and invention of new technologies that serve as solutions. Applied research work on the principle of method and purpose; you investigate the state of existing affairs and work out a change of plan or continuation. As an early career scientist, you will find applied research to be quite an agreeable diversion, for it is essentially working up with empirical data available from different sources and perspectives.
Basically, science is interconnected and an ever-changing cycle of advancement. Some do basic research to address the initial curiosity about nature and laws while others, driven by the solution orientation approach, take advantage of basic research to improve processes and technologies. Moreover, basic research scientists and investigators make use of these improved technologies and processes to do more basic research.
The concept of basic and applied research has changed dramatically over the years; increasingly, both branches of investigation are regarded as complimentary by their very nature. You are encouraged today to bring about a convergence of both sides for the greater good of socioeconomic progress. Traditionally speaking, information and communication technologies, and later biotechnologies had brought about the shift towards the broader scientific conclusion. Ever since it has become important to ensure concrete application of any new development and that has changed the whole economic landscape of research. But as with any other change, there are conflicting reactions to the shifting economic situation. Some segments are skeptical of the marriage between federal and non-federal institutional funding, the influx of corporate money into the world of academia is not to the sense of independence of some institutions and their scientists. Another element that is causing apprehension in the scientific communities is the fundamental nature i.e., the free exchange of significant data, along with the potential to undermine the authority of those experts brazenly associated with moneyed entities. (Daniels, 2015).
However, one has to be realistic about the changing economic conditions that are putting young investigators and the future of the biomedical workforce at risk in order to identify the new, potential dimension presented by the shift in strategic brainstorming in the world of science and funding. It is well known that today, global economies are undergoing transition and in turn exerting fiscal challenges on every aspect of life in general. In light of the NIH funding crisis and budget constraints, it is becoming extremely difficult and competitive to acquire funding to carry out any meaningful research. Today scientific inquiry is facing governmental demands of contribution to economic growth at large, that too with the possible, substantial cut in financial assistance that is the requirement of the said contribution. Therefore, as a matter of fact, and necessity, the private sector can very well fill the gap and invest in the long term in research and development (R&D). One has to be pragmatic enough to champion mission rethinking and restructuring in the scientific world.
Challenge of Evolving Expectation
As, an early career investigator, just starting out on the path of independent research, you must become conscious of the sea of change that is taking place in real-time. There is a huge amount of misinformation out there, but the fact remains that the nature of research is evolving and along with it, its expectations. New technologies and processes are getting incorporated every day, cutting down effectively on cost and time. We tend to perceive the future in terms of our fears and hopes and in relation to our perception of the present, but the truth of the matter is that nobody knows the future and that is where scientific inquiry comes into the equation.
With the passage of time and technological advancement, young scientists are expected to make smart and confident decisions. You can make rapid progress in your line of investigation by utilizing automation tools and artificial intelligence to speed up your investigation with real-time accuracy. You will do well to take into account the current streamlining of changing processes and systems; new-age tools of research are rapidly replacing the traditional methods. As they say, “own the game,” you too should get a new skill kit based on ever-evolving market tools to stay ahead of the race.
Challenges of Recruitment for Clinical Trials
Accruement of research subjects and retention is the biggest challenge for any investigator or a group conducting scientific health surveys. Recruitment is a combination of complicated legal and social procedures that takes a lot of time, planning, and legwork. Recruitment challenges are the reason behind any clinical trial delays, significant halt, or in some cases collapse of the whole project altogether. If you are going into clinical research, then you must make sure of the availability of subject resources.
You are well-advised to look hard and long into accruing subjects on-site or otherwise before committing yourself to your sponsors on the subject number count. In a particular instance, it is good to play safely in that you set modest targets and let your recruitment process set the proposed timeline. One of the most avoidable mistakes that young scientists make is to get themselves overcommitted with realizing the domino effect they could set off. The parts of any research are interlinked into a whole; one miscalculation can disrupt the entire project. You allow one subject to slip up in any way, and the entire chain breaks down to the detriment of your investigation. (Butterfield, Healow, Rogers and Yates, 2003).
You ought to be given naturally to the handling of safety, regulations, and research site management. Data management is also of crucial importance in clinical research in that you must facilitate the timely exchange of data to keep all interconnected operational aspects in a fluid motion. You must keep three the potential problem in mind while doing your preliminary research which is namely:
- Financial constraints
- Patient/Subject difficulty
- Arbitrary results
Plan in a manner that is favorable to keep your subjects enrolled for the duration of the entire research, as it is well known that 70% of clinical trials fail due to poor recruitment planning.
Today, biotechnology is exploring ways to stopgap these very issues by bringing in investigators who are well-versed in the process of recruitment and retention of the subject/patient in order to draw accurate conclusions. You should develop the capacity to be able to process clinical sites based on qualitative and quantitative data available and human resource management. It is important to assume leadership of the whole operation as a way to introduce a culture of responsibility toward the clinical research trial at the site.
In summary, we must take stock of the critical issues faced by health investigators, whether they are related to funds/grants (i.e., funds are running out, the government is cutting costs) or research getting expensive.
Our education system needs to address changing realities by adopting mental engagement tools. Fresh minds must break away from confirmation bias and institutional conformity and must be harvested to develop a unique and solution-based outlook. Scientific education and training ought to be done away with the outdated investigative framework, and bring in plans to establish vastly expanded interdisciplinary knowledge.
Incentives have wrong placements on the career trajectory graph further discouraging honest inquiry into the relevant area of interest by up-and-coming investigators.
- Alpert, J.S. (2014, May). Standing on the Shoulders of Giants. The American Journal of Medicine, 127(5), 359-360. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.amjmed.2014.01.006
- Daniels, R.J. (2015, January 13). A Generation at Risk: Young Investigators and the Future of the Biomedical Workforce. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 112(2), 313-318. https://doi.org/1073/pnas.1418761112
- Butterfield, P.G., Healow, J.M., Rogers, B., & Yates, S.M. (2003, February). Overcoming Subject Recruitment Challenges: Strategies for Successful Collaboration with Novice Research Agencies. Appl Nurs Res, 16(1), 46-52. https://doi.org/1053/apnr.2003.50004