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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 EMBO reports.

[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.

—Johan Bollen

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.

Strong rules to avoid potential conflicts of interest (COIs)—such as allocating funding to collaborators or engaging in collusion—would be needed, but this should not be a problem; the needed rules are similar to ones already in place in the traditional peer-review system, the authors argue. The new system, which could rely on a centralized Web site where individual researchers would make their donations, "could be more successful at avoiding collusion and COIs because it will be anonymous and confidential by design, lacking a single unique point of failure like a small review panel," Bollen writes in his e-mail. Funding agencies would still play a role; they would, for example, decide which research areas should receive more support, and monitor the overall flow of funding to guard against abuses. The traditional funding system could be run in parallel, the authors write.

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."

Robert Frodeman, a philosophy professor and director of the Center for the Study of Interdisciplinarity at the University of North Texas in Denton, says the proposed model has potential. "It’s a creative scheme. And we do need alternatives to peer review, which especially in a tight funding climate tends to discourage high risk/high reward proposals. It should be tried out on an experimental basis; though generally I favor the ‘strong PO’ (program officer) model who is enfranchised to make daring choices," Frodeman writes in an e-mail to Science Careers. "One problem with this model, though, is that it keeps decisions within the charmed circle of scientists. We need ways for non-peers to get involved—people from other disciplines and from outside the academy. Major League sports addresses this by giving some votes to the fans, others to sportswriters and to players."

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