Notes on a broken science funding system

2 minute read

A jeremiad from Henry Bourne: “Writing on the wall” Bourne:2013.

Competition drives scientific discovery, but too much competition for scarce resources can block progress, and has done so. Thus, the growing flood of grant applications surpasses growth in NIH dollars, reduces the proportion of grants that are funded, and renders peer review increasingly arbitrary because a project ranked in the 20th percentile is often no less meritorious than one ranked in the 10th percentile (Berg, 2013).
Another problem is that we now have a holding tank' of postdoctoral scholars that is overflowing with bright young scientists who are indentured to greying lab chiefs and are thus unable to break new ground as independent researchers (Bourne, 2012). The worst consequence, but harder to quantify, is that scientists avoid risky, creative projects in favour of sure things more likely to be funded by conservative reviewers (Nicholson and Ioannidis, 2012).

Probably most people who have thought about these problems recognize the fundamental catch-22 represented by centralized funding of science. It would be more efficient of time, training, and human capital of all kinds to simply pick a limited number of “winners” early in their careers, provide adequate funding to a relatively small number of institutes, and turn excess talent away at the door. But large institutes often breed groupthink and complacency. There is no accurate indicator of “talent” that would allow selection of those who will achieve great scientific findings from the vast pool of undergraduates. And forcing people to compete every so often does provide a mechanism for cutting out deadwood. That is to say, the likeliest alternative to the current system has lots of obvious problems.

Yet as Bourne and many others say, granting agencies have become the main drivers of groupthink and complacency, we have set up a system where talented creative people are actively turned away from science careers, and no “deadwood” is ever actually cut out of the system because networks of greyhairs protect each other zealously.

I want to draw attention to the comment section of the essay, which has a series of thoughtful exchanges. This passage from Bourne deserves to be front-paged:

A more vexing and crucial problem is that even the faculty who agree with me remain silent and virtually inert. They worry constantly about difficulties getting grants funded, and (correctly) feel pressured to spend most of their time writing grant applications, scrambling to support students and postdocs, and wrangling with prestigious journals. These pressures combine with habituation (in earlier years) to a friendlier funding climate to impose a devastating inertia.

My instinct is that we need to democratize the process of science. A wider group of researchers should have power, not just a stake in the results.