Alternative modes of research funding: exceptions or growing trend?

Peer-review of projects dominates when it comes to decision on how to allocate funding for science. But is it really the best way? Funders certainly think so. Over 95% of biomedical funding in the UK, for example, relied on peer-review grant allocations, a 2012 report found. In the absence of tried and tested alternative, peer review has become the default solution. But there is a clear demand for new and less onerous ways of funding research.

Now, alternatives to peer review are springing up. For example, crowdsourcing websites such as petridish.org and experiment.com are funding specific science projects through public donations. Some might argue that the public may not necessarily be relied on to pick the best or most deserving science projects. In reality, crowdfunding is more a beauty pageant for popular areas of research and suitable or projects requiring smaller amounts of money. For example, projects asking €3,600 ($5,000) to decode hyena calls in Kenya are sure to get funded. But, perhaps less appealing scientific fields with higher funding requirements in disciplines traditionally less understood by the public, such as parts of chemistry or physics, are less likely to attract cash. There is a real need for alternative means of allocating funding.

Distributed review, as an alternative to peer review

Recently, an article in EMBO Reports sketched out an alternative way of funding scientists, not projects, which would drastically cut down on the burden of grant writing. “If peer review is to happen, let’s involve all the peers,” says Johan Bollen, informatics scientist at Indiana University, Bloomington, USA, and a report author. So how would it work?

His distributed model involves every scientist receiving the same slice of funding from the original funding pie; however, everyone must then redistribute a specific proportion of their slice, say half. This would allow money to circulate and decisions of worth to be made by many scientists.

Bollen says the current US system, where the NSF grant proposal success rate is below 10%, wastes a huge amount of scientists’ time; this issue concerns European scientists applying to EU funds too. By contrast, his new proposed way of allocating funding would take just a few minutes each year for a scientist. And it would incentivise openness in research and change how scientists communicate with each other.

Some ask whether this approach would truly link funding with quality. And serious questions could arise for public agencies asked to be accountable for the outcome of taxpayer’s funds allocated to researchers. “My concern is that people would allocate money only to within their own field. Also a researcher would have to spend a lot of effort to come to a reasonable judgement about who to give money to,” says Steven Wooding, lead author of a 2013 report by UK non-profit policy research organisation RAND Corporation, entitled ‘Alternatives to peer review in research project funding.’ He adds: “we need evidence of how it would work in practice.”

This RAND report summarises the many criticisms of grant peer review and outlines alternative approaches currently in use. For example, there is the so-called sandpit funding strategy, where a diverse group of experts come together for a workshop and brainstorm, with the best proposal awarded funding. And there is mentored funding, where all applications are mentored by the funding body, and multi-stakeholder committee, including end users. There are also online iterative methods, where panels review applications online through a number of rounds, rating and ranking them and discussing options.

It is unlikely that there will be one best way to allocate research funding, according to Wooding. But “it seems unlikely that peer review will be the best solution in all circumstances and we haven’t really tested other approaches,” he notes.

Science of science policy under-developed

It is striking how little evidence there is that peer review is best. Wooding argues that we desperately need empirical evidence about what science funding mechanisms are most effective. “We should try to understand peer review better, but that is difficult without having something else to compare it to, so it’s important to experiment with more diversity,” he says.

“Some funding needs to be allowed to investigate what would be alternative methods of allocating money, but nobody wants to fund research on research,” points out research policy expert Merle Jacob at Lunds University, Sweden. There is no incentive for funders to spend money looking at their own way of working, suggesting that they need to improve, she adds.

Besides, Jacob is skeptical that the public could choose between the best science projects and believes the scheme outlined in EMBO Reports would quickly run aground against reporting requirements for funding bodies. She describes the proposal as intriguing and says everyone genuinely struggles when asked to come up with an evidence-based alternative to what we have now.

The absence of research into alternatives boils down to funder’s attitude. “The funders don’t want anyone telling them what to do,” says Jacob. She recently expressed concern about how smaller subjects are being squeezed out by competitive national and European funding. Instead, she suggested basic research funding could be transferred from national to the European Level.

Merle also co-authored a report for the OECD looking at how developing and emerging economics could embark on performance-based research funding. She says: “The one thing we found is that if the decision to move from block allocation to performance-based research funding is directed at individuals or groups, then it increases the cost of governing the system.” She concludes: “If your resources are limited, you are better off sticking to block allocation, funding institutions not individuals.”

Funded on one person’s whim

This runs counter to a rising trend in the US, where single donors have become even more involved. A New York Times article on how billionaires are privatising American science quoted an AAAS policy analyst as saying that the practice of science is becoming “shaped less by national priorities or by peer-review groups and more by the particular preferences of individuals with huge amounts of money.” The rich pick the scientists that impress them, which is a new funding model. Is that the way ahead? They are successful business people after all. Meeting an entrepreneur over lunch would cut down on paperwork, but it has its own pitfalls too. What if they do not like you or your area?

That approach would run counter to the model of taxation and public funding of science that Europe has adopted and has downsides. It could skew research to more trendy sciences, for one. But for now Europe does not have so many heavyweight philanthropists involved in science. Some non-profit funders like the Welcome Trust are considered significant actors in Europe when it comes to funding sectors like biomedical and health. To a lesser extent, the likes of the L’Oréal Foundation, in France, and the La Caixa Foundation, in Spain, The Volkswagen Foundation, in Germany and the Wallenberg Foundation in Sweden, offer somewhat more limited research funding.

And although such funders might step outside the box and experiment with new funding paths, in the mainstream, conservatism rules. “It is ironic given the whole raison d’être of science is to understand how things work that scientists have been so unwilling to understand how their own systems work,” says Wooding.

But alternatives such as Bollen’s distributed model are worth considering. “The first response from people is this is crazy,” says Bollen, adding: “but I always joke the more you think about it the more attractive it seems compared to the present system.” Clearly, he is right about one thing: the need for more creative alternatives to peer review that could be tried and tested. Then it could be decided, on evidence, which systems are best for targeting funding to research.

Featured image credit: Jimmy via Flickr

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Anthony King

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Anthony King is a freelance science writer based in Dublin, Ireland. He has contributed news and feature articles to the Irish Times, and science magazines such as New Scientist, Cosmos Magazine, Discover, Chemistry & Industry and Chemistry World, as well as journals such as Cell, Nature and Science. He writes primarily about the biological and chemical sciences, but also has an interest in policy.
Anthony King

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