Funding: Robison's points

Alexander Berezin berezin at MCMAIL.CIS.MCMASTER.CA
Fri Dec 29 14:32:27 EST 1995

Dear Keith and others:

I provide brief answers to your points in
what I believe is a 'constructive way' (if
we have to start somewhere) - Alex Berezin

On 29 Dec 1995, Keith Robison wrote: 

> The question is, are these proposals going to accomplish these
> goals, and what additional effects will they have?  

> What your proposals have encountered is mostly skepticism.  

No problem. People and social structures are largely
conservative. They tend to react of almost any criticism
sceptically. Especially, if such criticism invites hard
home work and revision of values. The first 'Manifesto'
of Andrei Shakharov of how the Soviet Union should change
was met with scepticism of many (and not only by political
reasons). It took years to provide evidences that he was
(largely) right.  

>  have listed
> some of my thoughts below; constructive criticism is invited.
> 1) Capping total research funding per professor
> 	Berezin has suggested that each PI's total research budget be
> capped to prevent a few from monopolizing the pool of available research
> funds.  The figure $100,000/yr has been mentioned, but this is quite low
> for much biomedical research.  Much of modern biology requires expensive
> instruments and facilities, which in turn often require a dedicated
> technician for maximal value (examples would include DNA sequencers,
> animal colonies, etc).  Just running a modest animal colony could probably
> "eat" $100,000/yr.  

I am well prepared to set differentiated caps for diffirent
disciplines. We all understand that biomedical research is 
likely THE most expensive. But you have to start somewhere.
Will $ 300,000 (US) suffice you as a cap ? (so, if you get
a brand new 'good idea' you will manage with available rather
than apply for more ?).

> Setting such artificial caps would probably
> make impossible many productive lines of research.

No, not at all. Capped budget (not poverty level, of
course) can probably even have positive effect as it
will stimulate researcher to think more creatively in
terms of sorting out options, etc. 

> 2) Fund sharing
> 	Berezin has suggested that researchers could maximize their smaller
> grants by pooling resources for high-cost services & facilities.
> Encouraging such sharing and similar ventures (core & departmental
> facilities) is certainly a good idea, but it is no panacea --
> some facilities may be too specialized.  In addition, there is
> the question of capital costs for the setting up of central
> facilities.

What you are saying is that the problem is (largely)
solvable and in (at least most) cases cooperation and
sharing is a viable option to consider. Of course, there
are some difficulties with cooperataion (for some - by
mostly psychological reasons - those whose faith is
'competition'), but they are ovecomable for the most 
> 3) Disengagement of graduate student stipends & postdocs 
> salaries from PI's.
> Berezin has suggested that the employer-employee relationship
> between PI's and grad students/postdocs leads to abuses.  
> It's not clear that such disengagement would have significant 
> effects.  Many gs/pd _do_ have portable or departmental funding.

I know all this, and again you have here a situation open
to much greater experimentation that it is now practiced.
Unfortunately, in Canadian MRC the trend is now to the 
opposite: to DECRESE the portability of postocs and make
them more tightly bound to PI. 

> 	More importantly, other factors besides money tie someone 
> to their boss -- grad students may fear losing too much time and 
> work if they move. Also, if the current sources of outside 
> assistance against an abusive boss are ineffective (other faculty, 
> administration, etc), they will be just as ineffective under the 
> new system -- students may find themselves with nowhere to 
> port to.

I am somewhat more optimistic on the above. However, again,
we need 'good experiments' (with controls ?) to say more
confidently the effects of PI-Gstudent disengagement.

> 4) Entitlement research funding
> 	An entitlement is funding which is awarded to all who fit a given
> set of guidelines, as contrasted with discretionary funding which
> is awarded based on particular decisions (which could be random
> lottery, review funding, or administrative fiat).
> 	Berezin has proposed that every academic professor be given 
> a small ($10,000 was mentioned) research budget with little or no
> advance review.  This would guarantee that all faculty have a baseline
> to work from (a laudable goal).

Yes, for small (basic) grant you don't need advance review]
(detailed proposals) but you still need retrospactive review
(what you actually did/published recently). This gives the
system enough leverage to act responsible for the amounts
allocated. Risk is pretty low (esp. in view of smallness of
basic grants).

> 	There are several potential effects of this strategy which may
> greatly increase the number of such grants awarded, as well as siphon
> such funding in possibly unpredicted directions.  

Again, in view of retrospactive review (CV assessment, if you
wish) the risk is minimal. As for the 'unpredicted directions'
the science is very much based on them. I certainly would be
inclined favorably to 'unpredicted directions'. 

> Could such grants be used for non-science research? (humanities,
> etc.) or mixed (art exhibits on science, history of science, etc).  
> How far from the mainstream could researchers stray and still
> keep such grants (e.g. faith healing, parapsychology, UFOs, 
> creationism, etc.).  

Of course, views on what is real vs crackpot are somewhat 
varying. You have relatively well established labs (e.g. in
Princeton University) to study paraphenomena, etc. However,
taking into account that both number of such studies and
the amounts they need are relatively small, some reasonable
solutions can be found - at least in such a way as not to
upset strongly the whole (new) funding scheme.

As for 'faith healing' you probably know that NIH has now
section for alternative medicine, but this is a pretty
small scale opreration.

And I certanly won't warry too much on UFO and creationsits,
as I said, you need past record to get basic grant. For
those who venture in stuff as history of science, etc
the answere is generally yes, as what they actually
need are publication, archivial and some trips expenses.
Grant of $ 5,000 per year usually suffice.      

> Would faculty at teaching colleges be eligible?  Would post-docs
> be eligible?  

You have to make basic grant (say, $ 5,000 per year) be
available to teching college profs and see how many of them
will qualify under the past-record scheme. I don't think
that the number will be outrageous.   

Some experiments with postdocs are probably possible
as well.

> What would prevent such funds from being diverted from
> research to educational funding (for example, by using it to fund
> undergraduate research).

I did, in fact, have some journal publications with
undergraduate students. I won't see this as a 'diversion'.

> 	In other words, what boundaries would be set, who would 
> set them, and would the end result be more good research or more 
> bad research?
> Of course, not all of the results suggested above are inherently bad;
> some before-its-time science is labeled as "bad" (but so is a lot
> of bad science), training undergrads through research rather than
> classroom instruction might produce better graduates, etc.  But, they
> all may alter the scope & success of such funding.  
> Keith Robison
> Harvard University
> Department of Cellular and Developmental Biology
> Department of Genetics / HHMI
> robison at 

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