A New Funding Model for Scientists

What scientist hasn’t dreamed of spending less time getting funding and more time doing research?

The current academic funding system, which allocates public money to researchers based on the submission and peer review of countless research proposals, has served science well—but some people believe that the time has come to find more efficient ways to distribute the money. Among them is a group of scientists at the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University, Bloomington, who proposed a new funding model in an article published last week in .

[A]s any tenure-track professor knows, writing proposals will usurp a lot of valuable time that one could have spent developing one’s research career.

In “From funding agencies to scientific agency: Collective allocation of science funding as an alternative to peer review,” the researchers proposed a funding model that they claim would be simpler, cheaper, and fairer than the traditional funding system, and more amenable to high-risk research and chance discovery. The National Science Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health supported the work.

The researchers based their new model on what they consider the core characteristics of an ideal funding system. As associate professor and first-author Johan Bollen writes in an e-mail to Science Careers, they wanted their new system to “enable scientists to set their own priorities, fund scientists… not projects, avoid proposal writing and reviewing, avoid administrative burdens, encourage all scientists to participate collectively in the definition of scientific priorities, encourage innovation, reward scientists that make significant contributions to data, software, methods, and systems, avoid funding death spirals (no funding -> no research -> no funding) but still reward high levels of productivity, create the proper incentives for scholarly communication (publishing to communicate, not to improve bibliometrics), enable funding of daring and risky research, and so on.”

Here’s how it works. Each year, funding agencies give an equal amount of funding to all scientists, unconditionally. The scientists are then required to reallocate a fixed percentage of all the funding they received in the previous year to other researchers, based on who they think would use the money best. Researchers’ total funding, then, would consist of basal funding directly from a funding agency plus donations from other researchers who value their work.

The proposed model would mitigate some of the pitfalls in the current funding system, which young scientists are particularly vulnerable to, Bollen writes in his e-mail. One is that “[w]ithout initial funding to conduct high-quality research, it will be very tough to ‘prime the pump’ and write winning proposals” for early-career scientists, he continues. “Furthermore, many proposal reviewing systems are not double-blind, so your lack of good reputation, and perhaps that of your new center, school, and university will put you at a significant disadvantage. Also, reviewing is often done in panels which can be subject to group-think, favoring mainstream science and disfavoring high-risk-high-reward research. Furthermore, as any tenure-track professor knows, writing proposals will usurp a lot of valuable time that one could have spent developing one’s research career.”

If such a new funding system were put in place, the goals and activities of scientists would probably have to change slightly, Bollen writes. “For example, you would attend conferences not so much to make a presentation and get a paper in the proceedings, but to meet with colleagues, tell them about your plans, and make them aware of, and even excited about, the relevance, importance, scientific merit, and broader impact of your research. A journal publication will still matter a great deal, … not so much as part of your bibliographic record but because of the degree to which you communicate very clearly and openly,” Bollen continues. “Collaboration and communication will be key vs. playing politics and making sure you get to sit on important review panels, program committees, etc. You need to be more of a citizen scientist.”

Ultimately, if scientists “do good work, and do what scientists are supposed to do well, i.e. communicate their findings, vision, plans, results, etc. to their community, they do not have to write numerous proposals and put the fate of each in the hands of a single review panel. Any number of other scientists that appreciate their work will keep them and their research projects well-funded.”

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