Should Research Funding Be Distributed Equally Among Scientists?

By Neuroskeptic | September 12, 2017 8:52 am

Instead of making scientists compete for grants based on project proposals, research funding could simply be divided equally among all ‘qualified’ researchers, according to a new paper.

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Authors Krist Vaesen and Joel Katzav argue that such an ‘egalitarian’ distribution of funds would still leave each grant holder with enough money to support their work and pay for students and junior researchers. But I’m not sure I agree with their logic.

Vaesen and Katzav start by outlining the problems with the current system of competitive grant peer review:

[There is a] common complaint that grant peer review bears excessive costs [12], appears to be unreliable [1,3] and is subject to all sorts of biases, including, among others, biases relating to gender, affiliation, age and ethnicity [1,46].

These complaints have led some to suggest abolishing grant proposals and giving money to researchers for them to spend as they wish, but Vaesen and Katzav say that a common criticism of this proposal is that it would lead to the dilution of resources, such that no researcher would have enough money.

This ‘dilution’ fear is misplaced, according to the authors, who calculated the amount that would be available per researcher, assuming that the current total funding was divided among the curret numbers of academic scientists, for the Netherlands, USA and UK:

According to our results, researchers could, on average, maintain current PhD student and Postdoc employment levels, and still have at their disposal a moderate (the U.K.) to considerable (the Netherlands, U.S.) budget for travel and equipment. This suggests that the worry that egalitarian sharing leads to unacceptable dilution of resources is unjustified. Indeed, our results strongly suggest that there is room for far more egalitarian distribution of funds than happens in the highly competitive funding schemes so prevalent today.

Good news? Maybe, but I can see some issues here.

First off, Vaesen and Katzav’s argument seems a little circular. It seems obvious that if we assume that the amount of funding and the number of recipients both remain the same, the mean amount of funding per person won’t change. So if funded scientists currently have enough money, they’d continue to have enough money if we redistributed the money between them. Indeed, the median funding would inevitably increase.

A deeper problem is this: an egalitarian distribution wouldn’t eliminate competition. Currently, the number of research-active scientists is limited by the competitive grant process. Under the egalitarian proposal, the number of scientists would still be limited by the competitive process of getting a ‘personal fund’. This process would itself be a “highly competitive funding scheme.”

If anything, an egalitarian system might be even more cut-throat-competitive than the current regime, because it would be all-or-nothing: everyone would be competing for the same prize, and there would be no consolation prizes (small grants). You’d either win the right to be a scientist, or you’d be out of science (or at best, a subordinate.)

Vaesen and Katzav suggest that personal funds could be allocated in an automatic way, based on ‘track record’, without the need for peer review:

[Funding] could be based not on evaluations of proposals, but on (largely automated) evaluations of an applicant’s research track record (as suggested by [1112]). Although past achievement is not known to be a reliable proxy of future success, assessing scientists on what they do anyway looks like the solution that would cause the least damage.

This might indeed be cheaper, and it would be fairer in the sense that it would eliminate peer reviewers’ subjective judgments, but it would also create a strong risk that whatever metrics were used to assess a track record (citation counts, say) would be ‘gamed.’ Then again, these metrics are already gamed, and grant proposals are often little more than nice-sounding works of fiction, so perhaps the situation wouldn’t be any worse than the current one.

Overall, I do think that ‘funding people, not projects‘ would in many ways be a good idea, but not because it would eliminate competition or increase fairness. I think it would be good because it would democratize research, making each (funded) researcher master of their own destiny and free to innovate, and favoring grass-roots collaborations over top-down “mega-grants.”

CATEGORIZED UNDER: papers, science, select, Top Posts
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  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    (Near-)Automatically funding young faculty for one project each would revolutionize science. If Euclid is Official Truth and a crackpot, call him “Bolyai,” says Euclid is defective, Bolyai otherwise is an unfunded pariah.

    ‘egalitarian’ distribution of funds” as such is social intent hallucination. Diversity’s displaces discrete facts with overall ignorance.

    The 700,000 Los Angeles Unified School District has a California Academic Performance Index tested IQ not exceeding 85. Caltech entry is performance 130+ IQ. Three sigma of diverse refractory stupidity gets $7.5 billion (plus projected $338 million deficit), 2017-2018. Imagine the world after a one year LAUSD pause poured into Caltech.

  • forsdyke

    BICAMERAL REVIEW

    .
    As the Vaesen-Katzav paper notes, the suggestion that we abolish peer-review and adopt a more egalitarian system, is not new. My colleagues in Canada (their ref. 13), made a strong case for it when our organization, the Canadian Association for Responsible Research Funding (CARRF), was optimistically tacking the agencies in the 1980s-1990s. I applauded my colleagues’ position, but I argued strongly for a politically more realistic position, which I called “bicameral review.” The numerous papers I had written on the topic were collected together in my book Tomorrow’s Cures Today? How to Reform the Health Research System (2000; for reference see their ref.13).
    .
    My aim, as with other members of CARRF, was to ensure that future generations of researchers would not have to face the traumatic experiences we had undergone. Sadly, in the interim, the situation has worsened. At one time I envied the politicians who had a vigilant press to keep them on their toes and ensure that meritless individuals did not rise to power. But in the age of Trump, I see what we had grown familiar with in the research arena, is now being duplicated in the political arena.

    Vaesen and Katzav’s idealism smacks of the idea of asking all criminals to register and guaranteeing them a fat annual income if they abandon the criminal life. Thus, we would be able to greatly diminish our policing and legal costs, so releasing ample funds for those who register.

    Vaesen and Katzav should first recognize that being entirely rational does not help. There are numerous political forces, the pharmaceutical industry, groups pushing for more support for their disease, etc. Bicameral review takes something that they support – the track record of an investigator – and blends it with current peer-review procedures to make its implementation feasible, without displacing thousands of agency workers who have a vested interest in the system as it now operates. At this late hour it should be given some consideration, at least as a potential stepping-stone towards the rational system that they suggest. Researchers are not like criminals and their ability to competitively secure a position at a university or research institute should automatically register them for base-line funding.

  • Not_that_anyone_cares, but…

    I seriously doubt it best to divvy up anything ”equally”.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      In fact it’s not really equally. It’s equally among people who get funded, but under the proposed system, some applicants would get zero. So there is, in a sense, still inequality.

  • polistra24

    Just use crowdsourcing for all projects. If a government or foundation likes a project, it can ante up a big contribution to the sourcing, but without placing any extra strings on the project. If enough normal people or businesses or farmers want to bet on a project, it could end up with more money than the foundation-preferred projects.

    • Matthew C. Barrett

      That…is actually a decent idea…

  • bobroehr

    A hybrid system probably is best, where a portion of funding is distributed equally and a portion on “merit” by competition. One can argue over what portion of the total should be allotted to each category.

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Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.

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