by John Hawks, an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin—Madison who studies the genetic and environmental aspects of humanity’s 6-million-year evolution. This post ran in slightly different form on his own blog.
Philip Ball writes in The Guardian about another new initiative from NSF to fund “potentially transformative” research. He begins his essay with this:
The kind of idle pastime that might amuse physicists is to imagine drafting Einstein’s grant applications in 1905. “I propose to investigate the idea that light travels in little bits,” one might say. “I will explore the possibility that time slows down as things speed up,” goes another. Imagine what comments these would have elicited from reviewers for the German Science Funding Agency, had such a thing existed. Instead, Einstein just did the work anyway while drawing his wages as a technical expert third-class at the Bern patent office. And that is how he invented quantum physics and relativity.
The moral seems to be that really innovative ideas don’t get funded—that the system is set up to exclude them.
The system is set up to exclude really innovative ideas. But Einstein is a really misleading example. For one thing, Einstein didn’t need much grant funding for his research. Yes, if somebody had given the poor guy a postdoc, he might have had an easier time being productive in physics. But his theoretical work didn’t need expensive lab equipment, RA and postdoc salaries, and institutional overhead to fund secretarial support, building maintenance, and research opportunities for undergraduates.
It is a better question whether we would have wanted Einstein to spend 1905 applying for grants instead of publishing. But even this is terribly misleading. Most scientists who are denied grants are not Einstein. Most ideas that appear to be transformative in the end turn out to be bunk. Someone who compares himself to Einstein is overwhelmingly likely to be a charlatan. There should probably be a “No Einsteins need apply” clause in every federal grant program.
Setting aside the misleading Einstein comparison, our current grant system still has some severe problems. Is it selecting against “transformative” research—the big breakthroughs? I would put the problem differently. “Transformative” is in the eye of the beholder. Our grant system does what it has been designed for: it picks winners and losers, with a minimum of accountability for the people who set funding priorities.