“Transformative” Research

A part of a faculty and any scinetific researcher’s job is to serve on review panels for other researchers. Many government agencies such as the NSF, NIH, DoD, and DOE all use external experts in areas of interest to help determine if a proposed research idea is worth funding. I’m specifically refering to open solicitations for research proposals wherein anyone can submit a written proposal to do something and have the chance to get the government to fund the work. Usually a funding agency request proposals for a broad topic, such as combustion, advaced materials, novel manufacturing technologies, space technologies. Each of these topics covers a wide range of possible ideas and fields, so they get a lot of proposals, anwhere from dozens to hundreds. The question is then how do you separate the wheat from the chaff, and do it fairly so most people don’t get upset (someone always gets upset). The most common solution has been the peer review.

In a peer review, other experts or researchers in your field of work will read your proposal and score it. The criteria varies from agency to agency, but typically the proposals need to be coherent, scientificaly sound, can be done in a reasonable time frame, has a good chance of succeeding, and the point of this article: be transformative.

What exactly is transformative research? One could argue it is work that changes the way we view the world, or gives humanity an ability to do something never done before. Some examples may include Einstein’s theory of relativity, the Bohr model of the atom, Fermi’s discovery of nuclear fission, discovery of the Higgs Boson, 3D printing, supersonic flight, data encoding, the first electric car, using microwaves to heat food, TV transmissions, and so on. Some of these examples are large milestones in the history of science, others are things we take for granted in our daily lives, but at some point in time they were new and drastically changed the way we live today.

So transformative research could be a lot of things, and will be in the eye of the beholder in a peer review process. I had the opportunity to do such a peer reivew, and I wrestled with this question of transformative myself. Some of the proposals were addressing a very specific and niche questions, which would be very useful to one field, but did not obviously help other fields. Others looked at big picture questions, but would be unlikely to get a detailed answer. Some proposals sought to answer very fundamental questions of physics, others just wanted to poke something and see what happens. One proposal comes to mind that sought to do an interesting experiment in an uncommon field, and take a lot of data, but would be able to address the fundamental physics because of the way it was set up. The results would not really tell us about the physics of what is going on, merely provide empirical trends (outline the problem as it were). I was at first against the proposal because I thought transformative meant there had to be great science and physics. But after talking to other reviewers, I realized that another transformative aspect of the proposal was just the fact it would do something no one has tried before. So even if the results wouldn’t be Earth shattering, it will be results and open the door for others to pursue the detailed science. So I’ve obtained a new appreciation for what is “good” research and worth doing. Sometimes you need to get the outline of the problem first, before you can even try and dig deeper. Thomas Edison failed hundreds of times to make the light bulb, no amount of detailed research into the physics of thermionic emissions would have helped him at that point in time. Instead he just had to keep trying to outline the problem of what material would make the light bulb filament.

The lesson I learned personally from the experience is there is no one definition for what is important, transformative, novel, etc. Some very simple things could be ground breaking in their respective areas. Some research may also not seem immediately transformative, but it may provide new answers and results that can impact a different field and improve our understanding of the universe and improve our lives.

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