University of Chicago pioneers new model to fund risky, ambitious research

Big Ideas Generator supports innovative work with potential to transform fields

On one windy afternoon, University of Chicago microbiologist Sean Crosson climbed down the shore of Lake Michigan and dipped in a plastic beaker taped to a mop handle. He collected water containing naturally occurring nutrients and contaminants, from the times when the Chicago River was diverted to flow into the lake.

Crosson and fellow University of Chicago scientist Maureen Coleman were collecting samples for a project using a grant from the University of Chicago’s Big Ideas Generator (BIG), a research seed funding program, to do something radical: to study the genes of model microbes in their dirty natural habitats rather than the sterile environment of the laboratory.

“Before BIG, no one would have funded it,” Crosson said. “It's a weird experiment. It's too exploratory.”

BIG was launched in 2014 to invest in research projects that, if successful, could have a transformative impact on their fields, build unique partnerships across typically siloed scientific disciplines and open new areas of research. These projects have little precedent, and are often considered too exploratory and too risky to tap into traditional funding sources.

During its three-year pilot program from 2014-2017, UChicago’s BIG funded 55 projects. The research project led by Crosson and Coleman was one of 20 projects funded through BIG’s pilot program that went on to receive follow-up federal funding to expand the research.

The importance of investing in risky ventures

A growing body of research shows that institutional constraints imposed by large federal agencies severely limit risk-taking for researchers, especially those early in their careers. As a result, the U.S. science and technology innovation pipeline is shrinking, leading to a pile-up of low-risk, low-reward research.

“Universities need to support visionary projects that may or may not succeed in order to encourage potentially field-defining research,” said Ka Yee Lee, University of Chicago vice provost for research.

Lee points out that discovering radically new knowledge is challenging in the current climate of hyper-competitive funding, which tends to favor guaranteed research returns on federal grants.

While failure of projects is the worst-case scenario for large federal funding agencies, administrators of programs like BIG expect that some projects won’t succeed as proposed and that isn’t always a bad thing.

David Gallo, chair of the University’s Department of Psychology, used a BIG grant to determine if electric stimulation of the brain could improve emotional memories. The results didn't turn out like he expected—he found that an individual’s belief about whether their memories are malleable may be as important as the electric charge. But this unexpected result motivated him and others in his lab to dig deeper into data and design new studies. A paper about his results will be published in the journal Cognitive Neuroscience, and helped earn Gallo an NIH grant to expand this study.

Elena Zinchenko, the director of research innovation and BIG program architect, hopes that the broader scientific community is beginning to see the value of failure. She cites a study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which shows that the publication of failures significantly increased speed of discovery in the field. Likewise, an article in the journal Nature reported that the promotion of more risky research could potentially lead to more groundbreaking research and avoid wasteful repetition of null results.

Creating a game-changing environment

According to Zinchenko, translating “risky” research into larger-scale research projects requires more than just funding. One thing that sets the UChicago BIG program apart from those offered at similar institutions is the strategic support from program staff. BIG’s comprehensive support services include developing a plan for targeting follow-up federal funding, providing assistance in complex proposal development and submission, and hosting a series of collaborative workshops in which researchers can engage in conversations with like-minded colleagues across campus.

“The follow-up is key,” Zinchenko said. “The BIG program is a very good mixture of idealism and pragmatism. It restores the main reason why people do research: because they want to explore new frontiers.

“The University of Chicago is well-known for intellectual risk-taking, and this program upholds that mission,” she said.

Using BIG funding and support services, Crosson and Coleman were able to leverage the results from their Lake Michigan project along with other research to receive more than $1 million in NIH funding. A paper on their research results published in ISME Journal described their new cultivation and genetic manipulation process. The paper has received interest from scientists in diverse fields, particularly ecologists who are eager to understand how individual genes shape microbial biology in natural ecosystems.

Overall, the $1.73 million invested by the Templeton Foundation and the University in the BIG program resulted in a return of $10.8 million in additional grants to UChicago researchers.

Crossing disciplines

David Freedman, a professor of neurobiology, used his $100,000 BIG grant to explore emerging technologies for large-scale cellular recordings in the brain. This addresses one of the largest challenges in his field: determining how to collect data from large groups of brain cells that form networks for communicating across regions of the brain. His results earned him a $3 million Vannevar Bush Fellowship from the Department of Defense to increase by a factor of 10 the scale of neuronal data collected in his laboratory.

Even with new funding rolling in, Freedman said that the biggest impact of the BIG program is attracting scientists to ideas in fields outside their own and encouraging cross-discipline networking. As a BIG grant recipient, Freedman gave talks to cross-disciplinary groups explaining his ideas. They have spurred several new collaborations among scientific disciplines that frequently don’t interact, such as economics and neuroscience.

“In the 10 years that I have been at the University, the BIG events stood out as one of the most interesting intellectual events I’ve been involved in,” he said.

BIG recently announced for a new funding round for innovative, risky, ambitious projects in any field. Funding amounts will range from $15,000 to $75,000 for research, as well as up to $5,000 for workshops to brainstorm new ideas. Applications are due May 24; winners will be notified by May 31 via the UChicago funding portal.