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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