April 07, 2014

Fund Scientists…not Projects: A Potential New Model for Funding Science

Public Policy

by Deb Hamernik, Chair ASAS Public Policy Committee

If you are (or have been) responsible for your own research program, you have probably dreamt of spending less time trying to get funding and more time doing research.

Since the end of World War II, most federal funding agencies have relied on a traditional peer review system in which highly qualified scientists identify the most promising projects for funding. This method has been considered the gold standard for evaluating the scientific value of research projects. However, this method requires considerable time, energy, and effort to write and review applications for funding, most of which end up not getting funded. Peer review may also be subject to biases, inconsistencies, and selection of “safe” applications with a high likelihood of generating results rather than more challenging or transformative projects.

In a recent report in EMBO, a group of investigators proposed a new funding model that may be simpler, cheaper, and fairer than the traditional system of peer review, as well as more favorable to high-risk research and serendipitous discovery. This work was supported by the NSF, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the NIH.

The potential new model is based on core characteristics of a desirable funding system, including:

  • Fund scientists…not projects;
  • Enable scientists to set their own priorities;
  • Avoid application writing and reviewing;
  • Avoid administrative burdens;
  • Encourage all scientist to participate collectively in the definition of scientific priorities;
  • Encourage innovation;
  • Reward scientists who 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); and
  • Enable funding of daring and risky research.

In the proposed new system, funding agencies would give an equal amount of funding to all scientists, unconditionally, on an annual basis. Each scientist would then be required to reallocate a fixed percentage of the funding they received in the previous year to other scientists. Each scientist would use their own criteria to determine who receives their funding. A web-based system would be used so that the reallocations would be anonymous and confidential. Every year, individual scientists would receive a fixed amount of baseline funding plus funding donated by their peers. This process would allow money to flow through the scientific community. In theory, scientists who have made the best use of funding will accumulate more funding.

This system would require strong rules to avoid potential conflicts of interest (e.g., allocating funding to collaborators or engaging in collusion). In addition, open and effective communication will be key. Scientists will need to take advantage of conferences, social networks, and journal publications to describe their research plans, including the relevance, importance, scientific merit, and broader impacts of their research.

The proposed system raises a number of questions.  For example, how would early career scientists or scientists from other disciplines get into this funding loop?  Would an individual scientist be tied to a single funding agency, and what impact would that approach have on multidisciplinarity?  This approach would likely require some mechanism for representatives from federal agencies to direct funding toward certain research priorities and allocate funding (baseline or reallocations) to early career scientists or scientists from other disciplines. As described above, this proposed new model would keep funding decisions within a relatively closed circle of scientists.  In a related news article, one of the study authors argues that “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.”  Would this concept of recruiting donations merely favor the most popular, outspoken communicators?

Although the proposal has drawbacks, the authors draw attention to the increasing need for new ways to fund scientific research.  As funding rates decline, and administrative workloads for most academic scientists appear to increase, the current peer-review funding approach should be reconsidered.  This report in EMBO contributes to the conversation of how to make such changes.