Reply to Patrick O'Neil

William Tivol tivol at
Fri Jun 9 16:43:28 EST 1995

Dear Alexander, Patric, et al.,

[lots of stuff snipped from various places]

Alexander Berezin (berezin at MCMAIL.CIS.MCMASTER.CA) wrote:

: On Wed, 7 Jun 1995, Patrick O'Neil wrote:

: >so why do so many 
: > sweat blood every year or two in order to simply continue their work?
: > > 

	It may or may not be a management-of-funds problem as opposed to a
total-funds problem, as Alexander says.  If assured of enough funding to keep
research going at a minimal rate, could not a great deal more time be devoted
to doing the research itself?

: > > In short, it is time for us to learn how to do
: > > much better quality science with CONSIDERABLY LESS
: > > MONEY. 
: > 
	Always a good idea.  However, as you say below, there are some unavoid-
ably large necessary expenses connected with many kinds of research.  Possibly
these can be put in resource centers and shared (Also the funding can be con-
sidered separately.  Here peer review might actually work.  A committee of
experts could well come up with the best list of facilities to go into a re-
source center.)


: some expert ranking of the researchers (NOT "proposals" !)
: is, of course, appropriate.

	Not that this ranking is not fraught with conflict-of-interest, person-
al bias, or flavor-of-the-month selection.  How would Deusberg's funding be
affected by his belief that HIV does not cause AIDS?  Should a passionately
held, but (IMHO) wrong belief over-ride a prior good track record?  How can a
"researcher", who runs a large, productive lab but does little or none of the
work, be evaluated?  Should such a lab be encouraged (IMHO, probably yes; it
is after all productive)?

: But the bottomline is that
: significantly more equitable and less stressful funding
: distribution system is long overdue.


:    A widely held misconception about science it that its
: quality can greatly benefit from the so called "competition
: for excellence" which is externally "coordinated" by funding
: agencies.

: Notwithstanding the best intentions of its designers, the present
: NSERC funding system leads to a highly detrimental
: effect: instead of being IDEA AND OPPORTUNITY DRIVEN which is the
: true path to excellence (1), the research is GRANT DRIVEN,
: GRANT LIMITED and GRANT SEEKING. The only real concern of any
: applicant to NSERC is how to optimize all his/her research along
: a single (!) criterium : fundability.

	How true!

:    The net result of this system is that truly innovative
: research is often suppressed by the censorship of the peer-review
: process (2).
: They
: will be supportive of the established (their) projects rather
: than truly innovative projects;

	Especially with the emphasis placed on "preliminary results", as it is
with NIH peer review.  There are those who propose grants for work already done
(they have a lot of "preliminary" data) and use the money to collect "prelimin-
ary" data for their next proposal.

:    Stressing the very idea of "competition" is based on the
: illegitimate transfer of a business model to science. This is a
: case when a model is used beyond its actual range of validity.

	And we all know what is the result of that.

: The so called "competition for excellence" has long ago passed
: all reasonable limits needed for a healthy stimulation and 
: turned into a ferocious rat-race and Darwinian fight for survival
: based on a principle of confirmity to the mainstream.

	What evolves is what is selected.  When the pressures for selection
emphasize safe proposals, conformity is what you get.

: Often
: really innovative research can only be maintained by its careful
: concealment behind the mainstream facade.

	I'm sure there is an apt Darwinian analogy here.

: This dilemma is
: especially acute for many interdisciplinary studies and for the 
: research which challenges the accepted paradigmas and the
: established dogmas.

	When micromanagement is aimed at avoiding failure, rather than promot-
ing success, anything out of the mainstream gets shot down.

: Also, a NIL-award to a researcher has a devastating
: effect on his/her graduate students, many of whom will consider
: dropping a research career altogether. This means a potential
: loss of the most valuable of all resources - a human talent.

	And, this makes it hard to develop a track record.

: On the other hand, a significant
: number of well established mainstream research groups
: ("departmental empires"), often with little real innovation, are
: clearly OVERfunded. Furthermore, the overselling the notion
: of research "underfunding" is in the interest of such
: super-groups experienced in the game of Grantsmenship.

	How can the actual productivity of these super-groups be evaluated?

: the
: crux of the problem is NOT so much in the bulk underfunding as in
: the MISMANAGEMENT of the available resources. Contrary to what
: may seem obvouis, under the present funding system "more money"
: from the government (even if lobbing for extra funding will
: succeed !) will EXACERBATE rather than solve the problem, as
: almost all gains of new public money will go to the already well
: funded groups and NOT to NIL-funded researchers. This is a well
: known "Matthew effect" in science "give-to-those-who- have-and-
: take-from-those-who-haven't") (4). 

	However, given better management, might it not more available money
translate into more and better research?  Although I agree that without solving
the management problem, more money will exacerbate the inequalities, it does
not, then, follow that more money is not needed for optimal funding.

: To
: justify their very existence the multiple NSERC committees
: require unnecessary lengthly proposals and multistaged process 
: of "proposals evaluations". The latter process is de facto
: largely consists of a second peer-review of already peer-reviewed
: (!) published papers.

	IMHO clearly counterproductive, but deemed necessary by the whole peer-
review paradigm.

:    Present NSERC trend to even more tighter peer-review "quality
: control", even greater "selectivity" in funding (more NIL-awards)
: is a step in a precisely THE OPPOSITE direction to what is
: required to forster the real excellence and innovation.

	But we've all seen examples where, when a policy fails, the response is
to apply the same policy more stringently.

: Paradoxically it may sound, but agencies like NSERC need LESS (!)
: (and not more !) expertise to improve their operations. 

	Or a different kind of expertise!

: 2. Out of 3 present NSERC criteria ("excellence of the
: applicant", "excellence of proposals" and "need for funds") only
: 1st and 3rd should be left.

	And "excellence of the applicant" should be evaluated carefully, not by
merely counting (or weighing) the total published mass.  It is possible to get
an idea of the quality of an applicant's innovation from looking over the ideas
in the proposal.

: For all practical purposes, the presently used
: 1-page form (NSERC form 180: "intent to apply") is FULLY
: SUFFICIENT IN ITSELF, i.e. as a rule no "longer" proposals should
: be written AT ALL. This will not only save many truckloads of
: paper, but millions of hours of a highly qualified professional
: labor 

	Furthermore, all the committee members could read and digest the entire
proposal, not just the few who are assigned especially to it.  IMHO, I can
judge the ideas of the applicant from one carefully-written page.  If not, then
maybe the applicant has not thought enough about those ideas.

: university-based researchers whose active status can be sensibly
: demonstrated, should be funded at some (basic) level using a
: SLIDING FUNDING SCALE rather than NIL-awards (5).

	This certainly mitigates the problems with the present system.

:  In any case:  NIL awards to ACTIVE researchers should not be
: tolerated. This practice is based on an ill-conceived philosophy
: of the alleged efficiency of a rat-race "competition" in science
: when only peer-review defined "excellence" is to be rewarded.

	And, given the selection pressures toward safe proposals...

: The real
: competitiveness of research comes from open opportunities and NOT
: from the enforced "competition" which in many cases directly
: detrimental for the very spirit of the reasearch.

	In fact, research progresses more rapidly in an atmosphere of co-oper-
ation and shared ideas.  I have found that teamwork, brainstorming, and the
kinds of exchange of ideas one gets at the better conferrences are the best
promoters of innovation in my own work.  Sorry for the long post, but the
subject is important, and, I think, deserves the space.
				Bill Tivol

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