If you’ll bear with me, I’ll wrap up my rant about changing the grant system in this post. Picking up where we left off, here are two more changes that could improve government research funding:
a) Fund the researcher/lab, not the project
This change has the same intention as a) and b) from my previous post [link]. Loosening the restrictions on the intellectual focus of funding recipients will open the doors of innovation instead of locking them into dead-end or myopic projects dictated from the top down. Funded researchers would have the freedom to switch tracks away from a project once they know it won’t work, rather than wasting months of research simply because their pay is tied to the project.
b) Insulate the funding system from public opinion and politicians
All of my suggestions are based on the well-established concept of how innovation works: many people have to try many things, of which a few will succeed, but most WILL FAIL – this is especially true for the sort of low-immediate-value, boundary-pushing research that should be publicly funded.
Obviously we want success, but even the failures are valuable because if information is disseminated as it should be (which is sadly a big if) they act like flashing traffic cones blocking off a road that ends in a cliff.
Sadly, most people don’t seem to recognize that discovery is essentially a stochastic process where you can’t know what paths are going to work a priori. This lack of understanding can in part be blamed on the human tendency to assign stories to successes that tell a narrative ignoring all the points of pure dumb luck.
This misconception is just one of a slew of other mental fallacies that distort most people’s perception of research. Instead of listing them, I will just point you to “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman. Worse still, many politicians and large parts of the public see government-supported research as a business investment that needs to yield clear, immediate value. That sort of research should be done by, well, business.
The outcome of having funding tightly controlled by groups with a distorted idea of how the research process should work – especially the sort of research that should be funded by public, rather than private money – is well summarized by Aubrey De Grey:
“The situation is the worst in the more mathematically extreme cases. These are the situations that can be summarised as “high risk, high gain”—low perceived probability of success, but huge benefits in the event of success. As any academic will aver, the mainstream mechanisms for supplying public funding to research have gravitated to a disastrous level of antipathy towards high-risk high-gain work, to the point where it is genuinely normal for senior scientists to stay one step ahead of the system by essentially applying for money to do work that is already largely complete, and thus bears no risk of failing to be delivered on time.”
A synthesis of these ideas into a vision for a new system really wants an essay, or at least its own post. However, my sketch of the alternative funding system looks something like this:
Rather than putting out calls for grant applications and spending time reading them, the gatekeepers of funding money spend that time actually paying close attention to their own fields. They meet to discuss the work of individual researchers and labs based on a number of useful metrics and award long duration funding based on perceived merit.
Obviously, this new funding scheme does not solve all the problems of the grant system and leaves several lingering questions. However, the discussion of how to fix our broken system needs to start somewhere if the innovation rate we have come to enjoy is going to continue.