Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Should we fund people or projects?

In Australia, grant reviewers are usually asked to score applications according to three aspects: investigator, project, and research environment. These are usually weighted by something like 40%, 40%, and 20%, respectively. Previously, I wrote how I think the research environment aspect is problematic.

I struggle to see why investigator and project should have equal weighting. For example, consider the following caricatures.

John writes highly polished proposals with well defined projects on important topics. However, he has limited technical expertise relevant to the ambitious goals in the proposal. He also tends to write superficial papers on hot topics.

Joan is not particularly well organised and does not write polished proposals. She does not plan her projects but lets her curiosity and creativity lead her. Although she does not write a lot of papers she has a good track record of moving into new areas and making substantial contributions.

This raises the question of whether we should even forget the project dimension to funding. Suppose you had the following extreme system. You just give the "best" people a grant for three years and they can do whatever they want. Three years later they apply again and are evaluated based on what they have produced. This would encourage more risks and save a lot of time in the grant preparation and evaluation process.

Are there any examples of this kind of "no strings attached" funding? The only examples I can think of are MacArthur Fellows and Royal Society Professorships. However, these are really for stellar senior people.

What do you think?


  1. Alexander von Humboldt fellowships would be the case, at least partially. In principle, the AvH foundation requires to submit research plans which are to be reviewed. According to a selection committee member, however, their main criterion of evaluation is the excellence of the applicant, rather than the proposed project.

    To my personal knowledge and experience (I was a AvH postdoc fellow for two years), the foundation didn't ask to report anything about the project. For several reasons, I pursued different topic from the originally proposed one, but the foundation never cared about it. In this regard, I feel that the reviewers and the committee simply consider the submitted research plan as one of measures to assess how the applicant is prepared and qualified.

  2. I can easily see the funding people instead of projects running into rich-getting-richer problems. If you're just starting out, how are you supposed to prove yourself without adequate funding? And how are you supposed to obtain that funding if you haven't proven yourself?

  3. One feels that academics who have reached a Professorial level should have a different funding regime to the junior academic or beginner who applies for funding. Suppose there is an area "A" and there are Profs and junior aspiring for funds in the same area "A". Juniors will never make it. Juniors may tie up with the Prof and apply . They may get funds jointly. Then the question comes who is 40% investigator. Will the Prof allow the junior to be the 40% investigator and the Prof be the co-investigator. The junior who may have lesser number of papers than the Professor may again not make it. So the best way is to have a separate funding regime for Profs and separate one for juniors, so that there is healthy competition between equals rather than unequals.

  4. I think making two regimes forces one to make a choice (x% to young people, y% to older) that is not easily defended.
    I think simply funding a good proposal is the correct way to go. Obviously the "return on investment" of previously funded research should play a role in this decision - with an exemption for people that did not have previous funding, and recognizing that a first funded proposal may not give as much return on investment as the n-th funded proposal.

    The question (as always) is how to qualify "return on investment" (avoiding a call to quantify this...). But that's another story.

    Regarding the example of the person that did not write a polished proposal: I would not mind not having a polished proposal /as long as the scientific idea(s) come(s) across/. I.e. a proposal is meant to have reviewers assess the appeal of some research direction. If the proposal is too disorganized to make this possible, then it should not be funded - one of our main jobs is to be able to communicate ideas, whether beforehand (proposals) or afterwards (papers). If one can't do that in a proposal, then there is something seriously wrong.
    So just writing something down and then (apparently) only /after/ receiving the funding, thinking about what to do with it is not okay in my view, even if previous records indicate proper work will come out. Tax-payer money should fund /something of which peer reviewers can say that it is interesting/, not fund "anything" while trusting something interesting will come out.
    - in my (not so...) humble opinion.

  5. x% to young people, y% to older... This suggestion for two regimes is not the funding amount. It is to do with track record and achievements. A Professor will have a better track record than a junior. How can a junior compete with a Professor in the same area? In 1960's , many good mentors would tell their PhD to chart out his/her own area of research other than following his/her PhD work, so that new ideas and new work come in. Many juniors tend to follow their PhD work which is almost his/her mentor's area now. This is the reason for incremental work in science. This is called as "empire building" or to be be very current " fixing metrics"

  6. When a Prof applied for a grant it becomes people plus project, whereas when a junior applies it becomes project. A better word for regime would be pool. Pool A funds only for Profs and Pool B funds for juniors. This way Profs will be able to handle even curiosity projects as this blog has been championing.

  7. How could one have 2 categories while there is a continuous gradient of situations? A young assistant prof freshly out from his postdoc can hardly be compared with an assistant prof who will be tenured in a few months. A freshly tenured prof cannot compete with a 60y old prof who has an army of postdocs and grad students. There is no simple, fair solution. Actually, I doubt that competitive funding can be made fair by any realistic means. It always ends up giving more to those who have already more than enough and transforms the best scientists into managers of huge teams. It just mirrors how our society works... To be "fair" it would have to be less competitive so that good but not exceptional scientists (or good but not "shiny") can still do a decent job. I doubt this will ever happen. Funding is more and more spread into different agencies, foundations, etc. each applying the same rules, so finally all giving money to the same people.

  8. http://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.1000197

    Real Lives and White Lies in the Funding of Scientific Research Peter A. Lawrence

    Some extracts.
    " I was also advised not to put our very best ideas into the application as it would be seen by competitors—it would be safer to keep those ideas secret".

    "The peculiar demands of our granting system have favoured an upper class of skilled scientists who know how to raise money for a big group [3]. They have mastered a glass bead game that rewards not only quality and honesty, but also salesmanship and networking"

    Anonymous 1 , the army of postdocs you mentioned has been well addressed in the following extract of the article.

    "Thus, large groups can appear effective even when they are neither efficient nor innovative. Also, large groups breed a surplus of PhD students and postdocs that flood the market; many boost the careers of their supervisors while their own plans to continue in research are doomed from the outset"