Funding: Open the Books

Gregory R. Harriman gregoryh at
Wed Jan 24 18:41:02 EST 1996

In article
<Pine.SOL.3.91.960124103507.15511A-100000 at mcmail.CIS.McMaster.CA>,
berezin at MCMAIL.CIS.MCMASTER.CA (Alexander Berezin) wrote:

> Let me suggest just one specific measure which is
> technically VERY EASY to implement at virtually zero
> costs (couple of secretaries can handle it in several 
> weeks):

> Put all NIH/NSF info on PUBLIC pages on WWW. This should
> include CONVENIENTLY ARRANGED listings of ALL grants given 
> by NIH and NSF (in Canada by MRC/NSERC). This info should 
> include tiles, amounts and time frames of all grants and be 
> accessible by the researchers names' (bith PI and 
> co-applicants). [ so, by typing 'W.Tivol' I can find all
> your funding history, same as by typing 'A.A.Berezin'
> OTHERS ].  

Stuff deleted.

> I think, one flaw which I now start see in your (largely
> biomedical) system is that disproportionally much attention
> is given to cases of the (alleged or real) 'misconduct', 
> while the open database proposed above can help to pose 
> much more common questions, not necessarily related with
> any wrong doings. It will become easy (technically) to 
> reaise questions what people ACTUALLY did with their money.
> For example: "professor XYZ got for the last 10 years
> 5 millons dollars in grants from public funds [ list them ]. 
> What is that s/he ACTUALLY discovered, developed, etc ?". 
> In short, people will be needed to keep (updated) layman 
> summary of what they actually achieved. This will likely
> develop greater respect to 'small' scientists (who are
> often beeing modestly funded, producing nonetheless a lot 
> of good science) and will lead to gradual (perhaps, quick ?) 
> errosions of old-boy networks.

     I see some potential problems with your proposal.  For example, it
might become biased towards "immediate payoffs" and therefore be
shortsighted.  In other words, if a researcher doesn't demonstrate ongoing
"productivity" (as judged by some perhaps arbitrary criteria such as how
many times his/her papers are cited), then he or she will be at risk of
losing funding.  Yet, fundamentally important scientific breakthroughs can
not be scheduled or predicted and may occur only after years of work. 
Furthermore, some important discoveries by scientists in the past were not
recognized immediately, and in some cases not until after the scientist's
death.  Also, using the approach you suggest has the potential of turning
scientific funding into a popularity contest, or a political issue.  It's
not hard to imagine how some of the more emotional scientific issues (eg.
AIDS) could easily succumb to such pressures if the criteria used to judge
merits of a scientist's research are what the popular perceptions of that
research are.

Greg Harriman

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