Funding research – are we just trying to be too perfect?

The money we have is limited, the research we want to pursue is infinite – or at least, there are a huge number of brilliant ideas just looking for some funding. Given this situation, it is obvious that we are trying our best to fund the projects which are most likely to be successful and that can have an impact on society, on economy, on life and security. But…are we really funding the best research ever? Are we really getting the best value out of our money? And is research really so underfunded?

In my opinion, the answer to all three questions is no. The research being funded is the one looking like its best, we are wasting tons of money, and we could fund many more projects without having to invest a single cent more. Our main mistake is that we are trying to be way too meritocratic and way too perfect. How so?

When resources are scarce, scientists start competing among each others, polishing their applications more and more, increasing the effort they put in writing their proposals. This costs time and money.

The more thriving is the competition, the highest is the quality of the applications, and the more difficult it becomes to evaluate them – especially as they are very specific, complex and unique, ranging over an incredible amount of topics.

To be able to define the true winners, and do so objectively, more time and money has to be spent in the evaluation. Also, stricter criteria are defined for the upcoming calls, to make the evaluation easier and to try and standardize the different proposals. The format becomes more and more important. You don’t have to just have the best ideas and researchers, you also have to write them down in a way that best matches the requirements from the funding scheme – all available online, in a nice 3000 pages manuscript with all the details you need to know, if you ever have the time to read it.

On this second round, researchers have to invest even more time and money for their applications – partly because the competition keeps raising, partly because you now need “funding experts” who can understand what should be written in the proposals and how. This takes more money and more time. Here the road splits. Those who already have some money invest more and more in experts to help their scientists writing top notch applications – which will be reinvested partly on research, partly on more application writing (and the higher is the competition, the lesser money goes to research). Those who do not want to invest in experts either give up on applying or send in “so-and-so proposals”, clogging the system and generating frustrations. And lastly those we don’t want to think about, the ones whom are embellishing a bit their proposals, editing the data here and there to “help highlighting their discoveries”, adding one or two white lies just to make sure they pass the cutting mark – and little by little end up in forged proposals, promising gold on no ground.

And here, either we fund them nonetheless, or we have to tighten the controls and put forward even stricter criteria to make sure only the best get funded. And by doing so, additional pressure is applied, the competition goes higher, more people fall prey to the “white lies” path and more people fall prey of investing money in super-hyper-mega experts which hopefully ay be able to outscheme other experts in making successful applications.

Nearly everybody in research is aware of the problem, and there is a lot of talking goin on, but so far there are very few solutions being proposed. What can we do? Maybe we can top striving to be perfect. Stop funding what we hope could be the best and let us give a chance to all that are good enough. We can always award the top scorers at a later stage.

How can we be less perfect though? A favourite of mine is the modified lottery funding scheme, as proposed by  Ferric C. Fang, Arturo Casadevall. You define a threshold, you score people as pass or fail and then you extract the winners as a lottery. Researchers have to invest less on writing proposals as they only have to be “good enough” and it is clear what is required, flushing away all the anxiety and fear of the unknown. The evaluation is faster, as it just becomes pass/fail. Mainly, the competitive spirit will fade away, allowing scientists to focus again on what matters – their work.

Try yet and again, everybody will have their chance to win. The money saved could be invested in more grants, or best in prized and grants awarder ex-post to the top scorers and best achievers, giving them a possibility to move forward with their research without clogging the lottery of those who are still beginning.

A dream maybe, but it could be possible. What do you think? Should we strive to be perfect, or should we help people being good enough?

By Beatrice Plazzotta
Young professional in Research & Innovation

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6 thoughts on “Funding research – are we just trying to be too perfect?”

  1. In the branch of science I study – numerical simulations – everybody knows that in a complex system there are really no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers, and optimality is unattainable. Everybody also knows that to break this curse, you need a some amount of chance, a bit of probabilistic thinking, to make sense of the uncertainity and thus make decions possible.

    I very much agree with the premise of this analysis. Whether the proposed solution is The Solution isn’t clear, but it’s absolutely a step in the right direction.

  2. While I can understand the frustration with the current state of affairs, it seems to me that introducing a lottery system equals to throwing our hands up in the air and admitting that we are unable to heal a flawed or degenerated system: we can’t exercise good judgement, so we introduce a random factor. Which proposal is the best? We can’t tell for sure. Let’s pick all those that are “good enough”.
    I am a fan of the concept of “good enough”, but in this context I think the author is underestimating the amount of proposals that would pass the threshold: there are armies of brilliant people out there, trained to write excellent projects. I don’t think that picking among the “good enough” proposals is going to reduce the frustration, but on top of that it’s going to take away motivation. I can’t believe anyone would want to question that meritocracy is desirable – which is what I’m reading in the piece and in the comments.

    As a researcher and recipient of multiple prestigious grants, I am well aware of the problems in the current “race” for funding. In my view, the core issue here is the definition of excellence and how we measure it. The second issue is the reputation of science in society, which is a much broader issue that shouldn’t be solved at researcher/proposal/funding program level.

    The way out is not easy. But I don’t recommend eliminating the drivers that make us want to compete in a healthy way, to throw our hands in the air and say you know what, we’ll pull a straw.

    The give the devil its due: it’s not that the lottery is always a bad idea. If we can assume that all participants in a race are equal (under specific criteria closely related to the job that needs to be done), then pulling a straw is ok. One winner equals the other (e.g. a top surgeon, an investigator, a drummer for a concert). But even in this case you are starting with a shortlist of candidates, the top five or so. Not all “good enough” surgeons. You don’t want a “good enough” surgeon to operate on you. You want the best. Regardless of this example, anyway, applicants for research funds are not equal and they are not in a shortlist, so the lottery method is, in my view, the last resource we turn to for “justice” when we’ve exhausted our capability to run a virtuous system and exercise a fair judgement.

    So, after peeling off all the layers of the problem, we see what the real issue might be – and I believe that’s exactly right: a problem of values. Who do we really want to fund? Is it more about substance or appearance? Short-term or long-term? What does Europe stand for? What do we care for? I feel that nobody’s willing to either take responsibility for clearly expressing these values, or that there’s an interest in keeping them hidden and confused, because we are currently saying that we stand for excellence when in fact we stand for something else. I believe that by straightening out the values in the system, a lot of other choices would come easy.

    Here, I haven’t proposed a plan for a way out of this problem. I let myself elaborate a bit in the direction I think things should go, and I thank the author for stimulating these thoughts. But bottom line I will stress again that a lottery is the abdication of the ability to exercise judgement, and I warn against it. Maybe Horizon Europe is a timely opportunity to change the game.

    1. Dear Federica,

      thank you very much for sharing your thoughts and apologies for the late reply! My main goal was to stimulate reflections and discussions on the topic, and I am happy I managed to do so. I hope the discussion will keep going on and will bring us to better ideas and solutions.

      I agree that the lottery system means admitting that we cannot exercise judgement, and it is not positive. However, I must admit I have lost faith in our ability of exerting meritocracy, especially at a time where many universities and research institutions seem to be struggling financially, and are more and more dependant on external funding.
      The long term plan should involve reflecting on our values and restructuring the system as a whole, but I see almost no ideas on how to do so and little solutions for the short and medium term (still have to wait for more news on Horizon Europe however, I really hope it will bring positive surprises for us all!).
      If no solutions are found, I believe that a lottery system would help tackle some of the current issues related to scientific misconduct and waste of resources – which I perceive as more dangerous than the loss of some competition drivers.
      On your example on surgeons/drummers/etc. I like it, but I think science is a different matter, ad that funding results is a bit too limited and at the end of the day we are not saving lifes.
      Yet again, in theory EU funding should be extra-funding granted for particularly innovative and useful research and the rest should be funded locally. What we miss is also a sustainable systems ensuring that universities and research institutes hire only the amount of people whose they can actually support, and more funding on public research at a local/national level.
      I really hope there will be more and more discussion on those topics and hopefully solutions, as now it is more “chatting about it in the back of our labs” and most scientist are becoming used to the fact that “such is the system, take it or leave it”…

      1. Beatrice, you have some very good points there. Agree on the local funding (mainly at national level). It’s very important to keep the stakeholders aware and involved in this discussion! Let’s keep talking about this. Greetings, F.

  3. I really like this idea. The drawbacks of such a scheme are explicit. Yet, once the negative aspects of the spiralling current systems are kindly and clearly explained as above, it seems a worthwhile alternative to consider. In a perfect world where the EU funders (citizens) felt a strong connection to science and were enabled to easily trace the influence of research on everyday life, it would be easily implemented and welcomed by many in the sector (besides senior grant application professionals!).
    However, I worry that in the current climate, funding of universities, which have been hit by eroded public confidence, will need to appear totally meritocratic and focused on excellence even at the expense of, well, excellence! Even more so when the UK is to negotiate (we hope) continued participation in the horizon programme. Any ways forward?

    1. Thanks for your feedback (and sorry for replying so late). I do agree with what you say, and that a perceived need for meritocracy is the root of most current issues. I believe the way forward would be to keep investing in scientific communication and outreach, not only on research topics, but also on funding related topics, ethics and so on. Having more scientists interested and involved in the communication process may help spreading the correct message.