Is there a new decentralized system for funding scientific research?

by on January 13, 2014 at 11:48 am in Economics, Science | Permalink

EMBO reports:

The new approach is possible due to recent advances in mathematics and  computer technologies. The system involves giving all scientists an annual, unconditional fixed amount of funding to conduct their research. All funded scientists are, however, obliged to donate a fixed percentage of all of the funding that they previously received to other researchers. As a result, the funding circulates through the community, converging on researchers that are expected to make the best use of it. “Our alternative funding system is inspired by the mathematical models used to search the internet for relevant information,” said Bollen. “The decentralized funding model uses the wisdom of the entire scientific community to determine a fair distribution of funding.”

The authors believe that this system can lead to sophisticated behavior at a global level. It would certainly liberate researchers from the time-consuming process of submitting and reviewing project proposals, but could also reduce the uncertainty associated with funding cycles, give researchers much greater flexibility, and allow the community to fund risky but high-reward projects that existing funding systems may overlook.

“You could think of it as a Google-inspired crowd-funding system that encourages all researchers to make autonomous, individual funding decisions towards people, not projects or proposals,” said Bollen. “All you need is a centralized web site where researchers could log-in, enter the names of the scientists they chose to donate to, and specify how much they each should receive.”

The authors emphasize that the system would require oversight to prevent misuse, such as conflicts of interests and collusion.

The (short) paper itself is here, by Johan Bollen, David Crandall, Damion Junk, Ying Ding, and Katy Börner.

For the pointer I thank Charles Klingman.

Game Theory January 13, 2014 at 11:58 am

Seems to ignore strategic swaps between researchers. Still probably better than the current system, but I expect what you would mainly see is coauthors swapping money.

Rahul January 13, 2014 at 1:51 pm

What’s up with crediting “recent advances in mathematics and computer technologies” for this scheme? Couldn’t you have ran the same idea 50 years ago with a printed catalog & a form for apportioning your money?

Or are they actually calculating some eigenvalues a la Google?

JWatts January 13, 2014 at 8:56 pm

“Or are they actually calculating some eigenvalues a la Google?”

+lambda, for some serious geek creds for using eigenvalues in a comment.

Jim January 13, 2014 at 12:11 pm

The current system is flawed, but in the hard sciences (including the life sciences) has an empirical track record of success. In a sense NIH Study Sections do exactly what the Bollen et al. paper suggests with the exception that the study section members do not de jure have a guarantee of their own money. I like to think of the NIH system (and the NSF system) as a peer review of “ideas” –in contrast to journals as a peer review of results.

Anonymous January 13, 2014 at 12:43 pm

“The current system is flawed, but in the hard sciences (including the life sciences) has an empirical track record of success.”

For large part of the history, the current system hasn’t been in effect. Some decades ago, it was usual for a fresh PhD to get a permanent professorship only after perhaps one post doc position. In the current system, getting a professorship takes at least ten years and even then you have to go through bullshit evaluations and application process to continue in your job.

JWatts January 13, 2014 at 1:42 pm

The US graduates a lot more PhD’s than we did decades ago. Furthermore, US schools are more likely to consider foreigners for professorships. Thus the market is far more competitive than it used to be.

Phill January 20, 2014 at 10:55 pm

Put another way I’d say is that it’d be interesting to scale the academy with the increased number of people going through it. Lots of people these days would be happy with tenureish/some job security at 60k than 100+k.

Rahul January 13, 2014 at 12:13 pm

Quid pro quo? Hell, they could even borrow a few of Alvin Roth’s ideas?

mpowell January 13, 2014 at 1:17 pm

Oh, but the authors emphasized that the system would require oversight. So it’s all good.

Govco January 13, 2014 at 12:15 pm

So now discretion sits with the gatekeepers who determine who is or isn’t a “scientist”? Do the new gatekeepers have different or identical biases as the old orthodox establishment?

prior_approval January 13, 2014 at 12:19 pm

The German Mittelstand does not tend to agree – but then, they also tend to be the people who actually invest in manufacture, compared to research. Which might explain why German companies do so well in world markets,

Alex Godofsky January 13, 2014 at 12:23 pm

The authors emphasize that the system would require oversight to prevent misuse, such as conflicts of interests and collusion.

Ah yes, the system will work great so long as ‘oversight’ can eliminate collusion!

R Richard Schweitzer January 13, 2014 at 12:33 pm

“The decentralized funding model uses the **wisdom** of the entire scientific community to determine a fair distribution of funding.”

Where is the Life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information? – T. S. Eliot

Anonymous January 13, 2014 at 12:39 pm

“The system involves giving all scientists an annual, unconditional fixed amount of funding to conduct their research.”

Even without the “giving away fixed percentage of your income” part, this seems like a dream come true. Even if this income was relatively small, I could just forget all the bullshit and concentrate on learning my field better and thinking about the actual research instead of worrying all the time where I will get my money from next year. Although, in reality, I doubt it is possible to find someone to provide this annual and unconditional income.

John Schilling January 13, 2014 at 4:07 pm

Who gets to define “scientist”, and for that matter “research”?

I’m guessing the former is meant to translate as “tenured professor at a research university”, and the latter “whatever the hell we want, and shut up about your practical applications / real world relevance crap already”.

Bill January 13, 2014 at 4:55 pm

You can do this yourself.

I’ve given graduate students an opportunity to submit a proposal for me to fund their out of pocket research expenses, like coffee, soft drink, copying costs, and even their seminar presentation at a local tavern.

They do have to include reference to the grant in an introductory footnote in what they publish.

Daniel Horowitz January 14, 2014 at 7:23 am

I wonder if this system will work better with betting on other peoples research?

David Zetland January 14, 2014 at 6:26 pm

We suggested a version of this system (applied to journals and research articles) in 2010: http://www.springerlink.com/content/2q80214867370564/

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