Release: New J-PAL initiative to apply the scientific method to improve science funding and policy

Close up image of a microscope in a lab with two hands adjusting its scope.
Photo: Konstantin Kolosov | Shutterstock

Cambridge, MA—The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) at MIT today announced the new Science for Progress Initiative (SfPI), designed to catalyze scientific research on the scientific process. Its purpose is to produce rigorous, quantitative evidence from randomized evaluations on the most effective approaches to funding and supporting scientific research—evidence that can inform both policy and practice. The initiative is being launched with generous support from Open Philanthropy, Schmidt Futures, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

New scientific discoveries are the basis of long-term economic growth and social progress. However, there are signs that something has gone astray: scientific discoveries today appear to be less fundamental than previous advances, and the rising average age of NIH principal investigators—from 39 years in 1980 to 51 years in 2008—suggests it is increasingly difficult for young people to enter scientific careers. Despite consensus that such facts are concerning, there is essentially no consensus on what to do about these problems. How can we identify young people of extraordinary potential and ensure that they are not discouraged from pursuing science? What institutional and organizational structures are most effective in supporting scientific research and scientific researchers? 

Motivated by wanting to make progress against these problems, there is growing momentum among science funders to adopt reforms, such as applying "golden ticket" schemes as an alternative to traditional peer review. While this appetite for reform is very exciting, SfPI aims to fill an important gap: when we reform how we support science but fail to build in opportunities for research, we miss the opportunity to learn how, in practice, those reforms affect the rate and direction of scientific discovery relative to the status quo. The idea of metascience—that is, using the scientific method to improve how we structure scientific research—has been discussed for many years, but now various currents are converging and there is real momentum to move ahead on that agenda. 

For example, two brand-new US public research entities, Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H) and the National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) new Technology, Innovation and Partnerships (TIP) directorate, offer opportunities to build in, from the ground floor, data and research into the fabric of the organizations. SfPI Co-Chair Heidi Williams and J-PAL North America Scientific Director Lawrence Katz are part of a small team of academics supporting NSF/TIP’s new Regional Innovation Engines program, with the goal of using research to inform program design, and surfacing potential opportunities for research and evaluation. Adding to this momentum is the fact that some private philanthropies, including the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, are making substantial investments in using data, evidence, and experimentation to improve and refine how they support science as well.  

Notably, the energy behind these reforms is coming not from academic researchers, but rather from the institutions themselves. This institutional commitment represents an exciting opportunity for partnership to advance metascientific research questions and improve the effectiveness of science funding and policy. 

SfPI is being launched in collaboration with the Institute for Progress (IFP), a nonpartisan think tank in Washington DC with an aligned mission and vision. Together with the Federation of American Scientists, IFP is launching a Metascience Working Group aimed at fielding, sourcing, and curating insights from the metascience community to share with participating federal agency officials and philanthropic science funders.

“J-PAL and our partners have more than twenty years of experience conducting rigorous, policy-relevant randomized evaluations,” noted Iqbal Dhaliwal, J-PAL’s Global Executive Director. “Under the Science for Progress Initiative, we’ll draw on this expertise to apply this methodology to scientific funding, uncovering new evidence to help guide decision-makers toward the most effective strategies that maximize social impact.”

“We live in a moment of renewed interest in the power of science to shape our future and growing appreciation of the role of the institutions that drive it. Yet we still have so much to learn about how to evolve the scientific process to be more productive, equitable and equipped to deliver on our collective aspirations,” said Daniel Correa, CEO of the Federation of American Scientists. “I am excited to work with the SfPI team and its institutional partners on this important agenda.”

The SfPI advisory committee, which will guide funding and other decisions, includes leaders from across a broad spectrum including the academic, philanthropic, public, and private sectors. These include David Autor (MIT), Pierre Azoulay (MIT), Matt Clancy (Institute for Progress), Patrick Collison (Stripe), Daniel Correa (Federation of American Scientists), Tyler Cowen (George Mason University), Ina Ganguli (UMass-Amherst), Kumar Garg (Schmidt Futures), Daniel Goroff (Sloan Foundation), Bishakha Mona (Science Philanthropy Alliance), Paul Niehaus (co-chair, UC San Diego), Emily Oehlsen (Open Philanthropy), Amanda Pallais (Harvard University), Elaine Sevier (Research Theory), Caleb Watney (Institute for Progress), and Heidi Williams (co-chair, Stanford University). 

“The way we learn that new medicines are effective is by observing in a randomized trial that patients have better health outcomes. SfPI is investing in an analogous infrastructure, aimed at supporting and cultivating opportunities for the organizations that fund science to learn how to do so most effectively,” said SfPI co-chair Heidi Williams.

To stay up to date with SfPI news and research findings, sign up for the J-PAL newsletter. To learn more about the initiative, visit the SfPI webpage.

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Media Contact: Eliza Keller

The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) is a global research center working to reduce poverty by ensuring that policy is informed by scientific evidence. Anchored by a network of over 200 affiliated professors at universities around the world, J-PAL conducts randomized impact evaluations to answer critical questions in the fight against poverty.