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Transformative Research - An Exploration of Six Propositions Open Access

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U.S. federal programs that fund transformative research have proliferated in recent years, with both Congress and the Administration urging science agencies to fund more of it. However, there appears to be no firm understanding of the concept. Its definitions tend to be inspirational but vague. More importantly, there is no operational agreement on how to identify, fund, and evaluate such research. This dissertation attempted to bridge this knowledge gap, and examined transformative research using qualitative case study, quantitative analysis, and text mining methods. Building on two reviews, the literature in the interdisciplinary field of the science of science policy, and federal programs that support transformative research, I developed six propositions - three about those who conduct transformative research, and three about transformative research itself. The propositions were then explored using data from a transformative research program created at the National Institutes of Health. Findings from the exploratory analysis showed that projects supported by transformative research is neither more interdisciplinary, nor are its performers younger, more productive, or more distinctive in their track records. Moreover, while transformative research is perceived to be risky, riskiness of proposals does not appear strongly associated with transformative outcomes. The only distinguishing characteristic of transformative research is the level of disagreement among peers reviewing it. The findings make intuitive sense, and may not appear new or unexpected. However what makes them different is that they are supported by data, a feature that the current literature on transformative research lacks. The study has limitations, the principal ones being that the findings were based on basic research in biomedical sciences, and no attempt was made to generalize to other research fields. Two potential policy implications emerge assuming that the propositions are tested more broadly: to achieve transformative outcomes, research programs may be better served by funding high-quality researchers to conduct high-quality research, rather than trying to identify potentially transformative ideas. In addition, extra attention could be paid to research proposals with divergent peer rankings, as this divergence may suggest the kernel of a paradigm-shifting idea.

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