Fund People, Not Projects....

Sep 30 2011 Published by under Grantsmanship, Lab

The lovely folks at Nature have published a comment from John Iaonnidis suggesting that maybe science funding should shift from a model of funding projects to maybe just doling out money to researchers.  Ioannidis tries to justify his assertion by bringing up the amount of Nobel Prize work that was done without direct funding, the pressures of researchers to bring in grant money to keep their positions, etc.  Don't know if I agree with him or not, but just want to make you aware that someone was kicking the tires on this idea.  Again.

17 responses so far

  • geeka says:

    I don't think that this is the worst idea in the world. You get a really smart scientist and give them funding for anything they want to do, and you might get something really cool. Plus takes off pressure of doing the 'sexy' thing that'll get funded now.

    • DrugMonkey says:

      How do you identify this "really smart scientist" that deserves the selection, geeka?

      Look, one of the biggest lies in that bit was the notion that 1/3 of grants are selected by chance. It implies that unworthy stuff is being funded. Thus is false. What is true is that there is no way to objectively rank and no way to predict degree of success in advance.

      Same for this fund-the-person crapola.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Ask the French and German junior scientists how this sinecure-for-life research funding for the chosen few works out. Also, realize that everyone in favor of this nonsense assumes that they themselves would be one of the annointed ones- consider it from the viewpt that you are *not* one of the few.

    • Wot the monkey sez. Research in a terrible state in France right now, everyone buggering off to somewhere less benighted.

      Of course, dogmatic idiots being opposed to private companies funding University research doesn't help.

      You shouldn't let me read things like this so early in the day. I need a stiff drink now.

    • Daniel Gaston says:

      Yeah, this sort of system tends to result in funding of personalities, and funding people who may have been great in the past, but not so much anymore. It can also make it very hard for junior scientists to establish themselves.

      A few economists here in Canada suggested the Canadian science funding bodies go to a quite communist type of funding system. Give everyone a little money on their grant applications, with review meant to just weed out things that were totally undoable, unworkable, etc.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    And of course, DG, that proposal selects for only inexpensive science...*another* consideration that people never fully work through. Which great biomedical scientists got by on the 2011 adjusted equivalent of $50K/year again?

    • Daniel Gaston says:

      Yeah, not saying I agree with the idea. Although reverting to how CIHR and NSERC handled granting in the past might not be a bad idea, which was a lot more egalitarian but still had room for larger grants.

      Keep in mind that the funding environment here in Canada is VERY different. No need to supplement salaries, no direct factoring of overhead costs that go to the institution, etc. So comparatively our grants always look smaller.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Now admittedly, I'm on blog record suggesting *maybe* an expansion of the R37 MERIT extension of the noncompeting interval could be ok. But that would be peer reviewed and performance, not promise, based. There are drawbacks..

  • Zen Faulkes says:

    This doesn't have to be an "either / or" situation, though.

    I think it is fair to say that the pendulum has swung very far towards one way of funding research: large amounts of money based on specific grants.

    It might be nice if there were some funding opportunities that went the opposite way: smaller amounts of money based more on consistent track record.

    • drugmonkey says:

      On what basis do you make this pendulum claim, Zen? What past interval are we comparing ourselves with?

      I'll note again that the NIH system would permit a small grant to be endlessly renewed- the lower bound on the R01 is one-module, $25K, per year.

  • To me, whether funding individuals makes sense depends on what you think the fundamental goal of the government funding research actually is. Obviously, this varies widely based on the funding agency in question. Are you primarily concerned with expanding human understanding, or are you looking towards practical innovations? Some of these agencies (DoD and DoE come to mind in my field) have specific types of projects that are relevant to their practical aims. I know many professor in my department, who, if left to their own devices, would spend research money on very esoteric and interesting questions with no practical applications whatsoever.

    • Daniel Gaston says:

      The problem is that a priori we don't always know what is and isn't going to have practical applications. And those esoteric and interesting questions often end up providing the basis on which future practical applications are built.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    NIH does as well....the "H" stands for "Health". it has, however, always understood that a great deal of undirected and even basic research is the only proven way forward.

  • mickey says:

    It is not surprising that he's asking to fund people not projects. Since 1990, that he got his medical degree in Greece, he has published 510 papers. That means 24.3 papers/year. Of course, geniuses are going to propose it. They have worked so hard already that they need a break. The question, perhaps, is: geniuses in what and for what?.

  • Aren't agencies such as NIH essentially already funding people and not projects?? Prof Junior Mint often gets caned by reviewers for a lack of experience regardless of the amazingness of her proposal whereas Prof Big Swinging Dick can slide by for years doing the same old shit because he is a known entity.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Ping, dude, ping.

  • Peter says:

    I doubt that there'll be any actual change if we keep assessing research by only one tool -- publishable results that must pretend to be super-shiny-extra-new-stuff satisfying journal metrics.

    These days we could start working towards evaluating much more: how people actually work, how good they are at failing successfully -- which is much more important to get truly new results (just like PiT pointed out so perfectly). Also, we could develop tools to actually become a real community -- enabling assessment of people (and their work) by their standing in the entire scientific community instead of a few panels, in other words, connecting researchers so as to democratize our community (now wouldn't that be scary?).

    Then again, maybe life-science research just needs a lot more of the same old research labor until truly new research ideas are needed. So maybe in a generation this will all go away by itself. And then all the big wigs are those that could perfectly game an obsolete system. Oh wait...

Leave a Reply