Fund the Research-er?

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It’s one of the trickiest conundrums in the whole research enterprise – should you fund people, or projects? Ernst Gombrich opined in his History of Art that “There really is no such thing as art. There are only artists”, but when it comes to research money, where should it be directed – to the science, or the scientists?

Part of the reason for the indecision is that you are not purchasing something when you hand over grant money, you are making an investment. But what’s the payoff, and how best do you (the funding body) safeguard that investment?

The payoff, of course, is knowledge disseminated in the form of research publications – and with a possibility too of patents. The only safeguard – and it’s not really a safeguard at all – is by trying to make that payoff (in terms of papers and patents) as likely as possible. That’s where it gets tricky. It’s still a gamble.

How then do you try to stack the odds in your favour? Do you focus on the project, and try to identify the proposals that look the best? Or do you put your money and faith in people, and identify the scientists who look likeliest to deliver the goods? Below are some of the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Projects:

+ less bias in terms of name, reputation; more egalitarian.

+ identifies fundable proposals, focuses on the science rather than the personality behind it.

+ forces the applicant to think specifically and in detail about what they plan to do.

– likely to favour mainstream topics, as a project’s “importance” will be heavily influenced by what’s perceived to be important at this moment in time.

– projects almost never proceed as written, so either there’s a heavy requirement for contingency plans or an acknowledgement that there’s a large degree of risk.

– funds, once awarded, are allocated by group leaders on a discretionary basis anyway, so funders can’t control how the money is spent.

– proposals are not anonymised, so personal reputation will still be a factor no matter how you dress it up.

People:

+ more likely to reward good work regardless of the field the scientist is working in.

+ requires shorter and less focused proposals, thereby cutting down on application time (and giving the scientist more time at the bench).

+ projects almost never proceed as written, so there’s more insurance in backing the person.

– likely to favour slick salespeople, more personality-driven (a “bullshitter’s charter”). Risk of halo effect distorting critical evaluation.

– risk of insufficient planning in favour of surface sheen. Meretricious.

– greater risk of nepotism, money distributed amongst (old boys’) networks, harder to get on the inside.

It’s additionally worth emphasising that there’s still substantial crossover and the relative pros and cons are matters of degree rather than absolute differences. People working in mainstream areas (cancer, HIV, mammalian biology) are always likely to benefit regardless of what system is applied – the important thing is to be alive to the merits and drawbacks of each method, and bear them in mind when awarding funds.

There’s no right answer, of course, and whichever system you plump for will be imperfect. Perhaps the most important thing is to ensure that no one system dominates, so that regardless of whether you’re more skilled with the pen or the pointer, there’s always somewhere for you to go (cap in hand). Good luck!

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