A Radical Proposal for Funding Science

The process of competing for science funding is so onerous that much of the value is dissipated in seeking funding. Risk aversion by committee means that breakthrough science is often funded surreptiously, on the margin of funded science. These problems are serious and make alternative funding procedures worth thinking about even if radical.

To avoid rent dissipation and risk aversion, our state funding of science should be simplified and decentralized into Researcher Guided Funding. Researcher Guided Funding would take the ~$120 billion spent by the federal government on science each year and distribute it equally to the ~250,000 full-time research and teaching faculty in STEM fields at high research activity universitieswho already get 90% of this money. This amounts to about $500,000 for each researcher every year. You could increase the amount allocated to some researchers while still avoiding dissipating resources on applications by allocating larger grants in a lottery that only some of them win each year. 60% of this money can be spent pursuing any project they want, with no requirements for peer consensus or approval. With no strings attached, Katalin Karikó and Charles Townes could use these funds to pursue their world-changing ideas despite doubt and disapproval from their colleagues. The other 40% would have to be spent funding projects of their peers. This allows important projects to gain a lot of extra funding if a group of researchers are excited about it. With over 5,000 authors on the paper chronicling the discovery of the Higgs Boson particle in the Hadron Supercollider, this group of physicists could muster $2.5 billion dollars a year in funding without consulting any outside sources. This system would avoid the negative effects of long and expensive review processes, because the state hands out the money with very few strings, and risk aversion among funders, because the researchers individually get to decide what to fund and pursue.

There are issues to be sure (see the paper) but experimentation in science funding is called for:

Government funding of science is a logical and well-intentioned attempt to increase the production of a positive externality. However, the institutional forms in which we have chosen to distribute these funds have created parasitic drag on the progress of science. There are many exciting proposals for new ways to fund science, but picking any one of these without rigorous experimentation would be foolish and ironic. The best proposal for science funding reform is to apply science to the problem. Rapid and large-scale experimentation is needed to continuously update and improve our science funding methods.

That is from a prize-winning essay from the CSPI by Maxwell Tabarrok.

See also Tyler’s important post, Science as a source of social alpha.


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