Funding people

From Scientific American’s editorial on grants, “Dr. No Money”:

Most scientists finance their laboratories (and often even their own salaries) by applying to government agencies and private foundations for grants. The process has become a major time sink. In 2007 a U.S. government study found that university faculty members spend about 40 percent of their research time navigating the bureaucratic labyrinth, and the situation is no better in Europe. An experimental physicist at Columbia University says he once calculated that some grants he was seeking had a net negative value: they would not even pay for the time that applicants and peer reviewers spent on them.

The editorial discusses in greater length the problem that the application process encourages derivative work with predictable results. I think this is a problem of peer review for grants that doesn’t hold for papers. A fundamentally new idea cannot (and should not) survive review without supporting evidence. A paper can provide the evidence because it is reporting on work that has been done. But a grant application may have no results to show. No results, no money.

The editorial proposes that funders should reward people instead of projects. I have some sympathy for that idea. But the promising people are not always the ones with the longest publication records.