Should we move to a system where every scientist gives grant money away?

3 minute read

Worth a read: “With this new system, scientists never have to write a grant application again”.

In Bollen’s system, scientists no longer have to apply; instead, they all receive an equal share of the funding budget annually—some €30,000 in the Netherlands, and $100,000 in the United States—but they have to donate a fixed percentage to other scientists whose work they respect and find important. “Our system is not based on committees’ judgments, but on the wisdom of the crowd,” Scheffer told the meeting.
Bollen and his colleagues have tested their idea in computer simulations. If scientists allocated 50% of their money to colleagues they cite in their papers, research funds would roughly be distributed the way funding agencies currently do, they showed in a paper last year—but at much lower overhead costs.

The incredible costs in time and money just to apply for grants and allocate grant funding are approaching insanity levels. With success rates spiraling down below 15%, researchers are spending more and more of their time writing grant applications and less and less doing research, teaching students, or sharing with the public. The average successful grant applicant sinks months of work into grant applications each year that could have been spent doing science, in a fairer system.

I’ve thought a lot about the kind of “self-organized fund allocation” described in the linked article. Allocating money on the condition that some must be given to other researchers would create several downstream benefits. Scientists who maximize the ability of other scientists to produce their own new and useful results would have a big advantage in this system. Jerks would be punished appropriately. Once they have a role in the system, scientists could make rational decisions about how to collaborate with other researchers to build a larger program, instead of trying to centralize into their own little kingdoms.

The article mentions that Bollen’s scheme includes a condition that you can’t just give money to coauthors. The supposed problem is that people will choose to allocate funding to their friends.

Personally, I think that kind of condition decreases the appeal. Maybe there should be a barrier to allocating within an individual’s institution, to prevent administrators from pressuring researchers to keep the money at home. But I think the ability to allocate money to friends will encourage the development of stable research collaborations across institutions (and internationally). Besides, giving other scientists the means to reward friendly behavior will create a lot more friendly environments for science in the future. I think people allocating money within “friend” networks is a feature of a system, not a bug.

But one thing that I think this model wouldn’t address is the risk-averseness of today’s scientists. Today’s funding model disincentivizes taking true intellectual risks. The funded applications are those for which outcomes can be predicted. As a result, some of the most talented researchers are aiming low, instead of trying to swing for the fences. But giving people money to allocate to others is not likely to address what I see as a big problem. To be sure, having a more stable funding, at a low level, will enable some people to try radical new ideas. But any system where a winner-take-all effects kick in is one where it’s hard to fund contrarian or risky research.

Of course, as applied to human evolution research, or even biological anthropology more broadly, this kind of system wouldn’t have quite the impact as biomedical science. If we divided all the NSF funding for Biological Anthropology among the bona fide researchers in this field working in the U.S., it would average less than $3000 per scientist. Still, I’m pretty sure that amount would generate a lot more research distributed across hundreds of working scientists instead of clumped into the overhead budgets of a few big winners.