View from the Trenches

William Tivol tivol at WADSWORTH.ORG
Fri Aug 4 10:50:22 EST 1995


Dear Alexander,
> 
> Why PEOPLE (and not the "ideas") should be funded:
> 
> I can't quite identify who said what in the attached
> exchange, so I give a summaraly reply to this
> (attached) poster. 
> 
	All my contributions are indented.  The others are from Kathy,
with a single ">" and another contributer, with ">>", etc.

> Except of the Platonic world, the existence of "ideas"
> per se has no (or very little bearing) on what we are
> actually doing.

	I disagree.  What we are doing--at least in the context of
what the grant funds are to be used for--is based on an idea and the
details of how it is to be worked out.  For example, I applied for a
small grant to develop an enhanced non-laser light source.  This kind
of light source would be ideal for certain projects in confocal micro-
scopy.  My idea was to modify a mercury-vapor plasma using magnetic
fields, so as to produce a higher emission density (photons per mm**3).
This idea was precisely what I would do if the grant was funded.

> Ideas, like AIDS (sorry for comparison)
> exist only in PEOPLE. So, any sensible (funding) system 
> should primarily fund PEOPLE (with demostrated capacity 
> to generate ideas), so they can do precisely this - generate
> and TEST the ideas. 
> 
	But if the idea is good, shouldn't the person be funded re-
gardless of whether (s)he has ten publications or 1000?  Do you
believe that anyone with 1000 publications should get funding, even
though the ideas (s)he proposes make no sense?  If you are arguing
for a granting system like the McArthur Foundation grants, which
are unrestricted money, I agree that there is a place for them, and
perhaps all research funding should be in the form of unrestricted
grants plus equipment grants, etc., so that competant researchers
can be assured of funding and they can then generate any ideas
they want.

> But at least as far as fundamental core sciences
> like physics [my PhD is in physics, BT] or mathematics are
>concerned, the notion "fund ideas, not people" is comple-
>tely bankrupt by history, it NEVER worked and NEVER WILL.

	The construction of the Bevatron at LBL was proposed specif-
ically to produce and detect the antiproton.  This project would have
made sense even if Segre and Chamberlain were not the ones who proposeed
it, and, in fact, if it were not for Clyde Wiegand's expertise in the
design of the electronics, the antiproton might not have been found.
Clyde was not a household name, and if he proposed the Bevatron, it
might not have been funded.

> All history of peer review demostates that it has no capa-
>city  whatsoever in forecasting the "best" ideas better
> than random. Pre-approval of "good ideas" by peer
> review is a PROVEN nonsense. 
> 
	But study sections routinely comment on the ideas presented
in the proposals.  My quarrel is with a study section which says,
"The ideas in this proposal have merit, but we don't think your lab
will be able to do the work."  While on the other hand, a famous lab
is not questioned.  Other posts in this thread pertain to the relation
between "famous" and "competent" (or the lack thereof).  Especially
since the famous scientists often do little of the work themselves,
this kind of evaluation does not seem to be justified IMHO.

>  However, peer review IS CAPABLE to assess (better
> than random) the ability of specific people generate
> those ideas which actually can (and were) IMPLEMENTED.

	I thought your observation of the Canadian system was that
many competent researchers were not assessed properly.  Of course,
if researchers are not funded, their ideas will not be implemented
(at least by them).

> Contary to futuroloical crystal balling over the 
> UNDONE work ("proposals evaluation"), the assessment of
> TRACK RECORD is a fully feasible task 

	Agreed; the record is there and can be evaluated.
>  
> (and give me a break with people with "good ideas,
> but without track record").
> 
	That's who the "young investigator" grants are for.  But
allowances should be made for those who have been unable to get
grant funding, and have relatively few--but significant--publications.
These people do not look as good on paper, but deserve an opportunity.
Perhaps some measure of track record (papers-per-grant-dollar) can
suitably account for them.  If they have had grant after grant and
produced nothing, then either their ideas are not good, or they can't
implement them.
	BTW, my use of the word "idea" means not just the abstract core
("It would be good to build an accelerator to find the antiproton."),
but the detailed idea ("To find the antiproton, we would need to acce-
lerate protons to >6.2 GeV and detect them in a proton-proton scattering
experiment with detectors capable of discriminating an antiproton-
producing event from the background counts.").  This complete kind of
idea can be evaluated on the basis that the proposed reaction (p+p ->
p+p+p+anti-p) makes sense, the calculations are correct, the accelerator
design is soundly based, the detector array will do the job, etc.  My
contention is that the detailed plans will still work, regardless of who
proposes them.

> Anyone can generate plenty of "good ideas". 
> In 1726 (!) Johnathan Swift in "Gulliver Travels"
> described an "idea generation machine" used by
> the Laputa scientists (randomly rotating cubes
> put random key words together - and it 
> works pretty much the same way as many actually
> do now).
> 
	But to make the ideas complete, one needs more than dice,
unless the idea is for a Monte Carlo calculation.  The "idea generation
machine" only generates the abstract core--and it may be perfectly good
for that--but to flesh out the idea requires calculations, some connec-
tion to previous knowledge, and an experimental plan.

> Once again - if we (you) want to do something
> seriuos about the present NIH/NSF/NSERC/MRC mess,
> the only way to do it is to fund MORE people
> on (often) significantly LESSER levels than
> at present. Of course, grantsmanship elite
> will fiercely resist, but you have no choice
> but to fight for this cause.     
> 
	I agree 100%.

> Ny estimate is that unless we will do the
> above (reform the system from competition to
> coopreation and mutual support rather than
> internal grantsmanship warfare),

	Your very best point!  Cooperation produces much more than
competition as far as science is concerned.  A system which encourages
scientists to work together openly is one which will lead to the best
use of resources.  The J-psi particle story, where one researcher lied
to another so that he might get priority for the discovery was a low
point for physics IMHO.  Although it is good to have two labs using
different techniques both discovering the same thing, there is no need
for these labs to be in competition.  In fact, more confirmation and
independent duplication of results would uncover sloppiness and fraud,
but this kind of work is not funded, because it's not original.  The
competative system has many flaws, which you have pointed out.
				Yours,
				Bill Tivol	




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