Funding and Independent Scholars

Alexander Berezin berezin at MCMAIL.CIS.MCMASTER.CA
Sat Mar 16 17:35:14 EST 1996

Please see my reply after Allen's comment.
Alex Berezin

On 16 Mar 1996, Allen Adler wrote:

> I think it is unfortunate that everyone seems to be accepting
> the premise that getting a PhD is nothing more than vocational
> training and that the key issue is whether one component of the
> factory we call society is producing its outputs faster than
> another component can accept them as inputs.
> Speaking as an independent scholar active in his research,
> I can tell you that there is more than that to getting a
> PhD. It is called scholarship and it has something to do
> with a direct involvement with the subject matter, not with
> the administrative and funding structures which have grown
> up around it. Accordingly, this discussion leaves me rather
> cold.
> Admittedly, everyone who wishes to pursue his/her scholarship
> has to figure out how to put bread on the table and to cover
> the logistical costs of the scholarship itself. But it is
> up to the individual who undertakes the scholarship to decide
> whether to face the bleak odds or not. It is not up to the
> schools to make the decision for them.
> >From the discussion, it sounds as though the trend will be
> towards independent scholarship. People who have never experienced
> intelligent life outside the operational definitions of
> their research establishments will be surprised to know that
> this road is not impossible to travel. Therefore, I would
> appreciate seeing some discussion of independent scholarship
> from the point of view of someone trying to do it, not from
> the cushy point of view of those who wheel and deal.
> In particular, I would like to know what is to be done to
> encourage and to facilitate truly independent inquiry. The
> intellectual life you save may be your own.
> Allan Adler
> adler at

Dear Allan:

I think that most of us (scientists who criticise
the present funding system) are considering ourselves
as 'independent scholars' in the very same sense you
are talking about above. We (I hope majority of us) do
have 'some means to put bread on the table' (teaching,
moonlighting, or whatever each and every manages to 
do for living) and we (again, hope all or most of us) 
do value our freedom of inquiry, we [ quite often ]
refuse to let our findings be mutilated by 'peer
review' and we do what we can to do our research, even 
if this (sometimes) means cutting a slice from the
bread at the table.

No, most of us are NOT desperate (even those of us
who do not have research funding), but what we see
around is a highly unfair funding distribution system 
when some people ('established elite') grabs most of 
the pie, leaving for their unfunded colleagues literally 
nothing. This is called science integrity and 
solidarity of scientists. 

If the funding system realy selected the 'best' (and 
left the 'worst' unfunded), that would be at least 
understandable (and perhaps even justifieable) to 
some degree. 

But this is bluntly NOT the case by all the reasons
we have posted earlier. That is why we (or rather some
of us) to continue public campaign for the decency
of the research funding system. 

Below I am attaching a file which was send today 
on another occasion. This is self-explanatory and
I append it for those readers who want to read more 
on the topic (sorry, that the file is pretty long
and some of this mateiral was posted earlier)

attached file


Dr. Paul Vincett, 
President, Canadian
Association of Physicists

March 17, 1996

Dear Dr. Vincett:

This letter is to reply to your call to provide input 
to the Review of Canadian Academic Physics which is
jointly conducted by CAP and NSERC. I intend this be 
an 'Open Letter', so the copies of it can be freely 
distributed (please feel free to do so, if you wish). 
The following points are certainly not limited to the
professional interests of the physics community in 
a narrow sense, but are of concern to the members of 
Canadian academic community in all areas of science 
and engineering.  

As your letters states, you are looking for the
input on the following points:

(quoting your letter):

(i) what is going on and what is planned in Canadian 
academic physics, 

(ii) where our weaknesses and strengths are, 

(iii) what degree of selectivity and concentration 
there should be in granting practices, in the context 
of reduced budgets, 

(iv) how to maintain diversity and risk-taking IF 
increased concentration is deemed desirable, 

(v) how to encourage interdisciplinary research, 
risk-taking, spin-off activities, and the 
communication of research results to the public, 

(vi) to assess whether the health of the discipline 
would be enhanced by a major collaborative effort 
across subdiscipline boundaries or between physics 
and other disciplines, 

(vii) to better quantify the economic benefits of 
physics research.

[ end of quote ]

In my opinion, the item (iv) is a clear logical 
impossibility. You can't encourage risk taking and 
at the same time to bracket it by the pre-decided
policies of 'concentration'. Academic scientists 
are fully capable to decide for themselves where 
to best bet their efforts.  

Likewise, it is impossible to reach any noticable 
progress in (v), (vi), and (vii), unless and until 
a significant serious attention is paid to the
item (iii), namely the ISSUE OF 'SELECTIVITY' IN 

As you are probably aware, a group about a hunderd 
of Canadian university professors representing many 
academic disciplines has founded recently (in May 
1994) a new association, CARRF (Canadian Association 
for Responsible Research Funding). Among several 
issues critical to the health of Canadian university 
research, we have singled out NSERC's practice of 
mass 'NIL' awards as the most damaging and deplorable 
aspect of the funding process. No matter how severe 
the overall budget situation may appear, to let 
close to 40 % of Canadian professors in science and 
engineering go COMPLETELY unfunded (present rate 
of NIL awards) is an unjustifiable waste of human 
resources and talent.

While none of us is advocationg that the research 
funding should be a free ride, we believe that cases 
of complete unfunding ('NIL awards') among research-active
professors should be rare exceptions rather than a 
common rule. Complete denial of operating grant 
(NIL award) should be applied only in the most severe 
cases of a demonstrated lack of scientific productivity 
over the term of the previous granting period. In all 
other cases, funding on a basis of 'SLIDING SCALE' 
(developed by Professor Donald Forsdyke of Queens 
University) gives a reasonable, practical and 
administartively easily sustainable alternative 
which is very likely to be stimulative towards the 
objectives you have outlined above as (v), (vi), 
and (vii).

I urge you, therefore, as a first step to propose to 
the NSERC Administration that the present 'selectivity'
policy be replaced by the funding based on a Sliding
Ranking Scale. Without this change in NSERC's funding
policy, all other measures are bound to remain 
contrproducive and will not bring anything real beyond 
the mere rethorics and token cosmetic effects.

Attachment (after the signature):

Article 'RESEARCH FUNDING MYTHS', which provides
some more details to the above.

Sincerely yours,

Alexander A. Berezin,
Secretary for CARRF (Canadian Association 
for Responsible Research Funding),
Department of Engineering Physics,
McMaster University, Hamilton,
Ontario, L8S 4L7,
(905) 525-9140 ext 24546,
e-mail: berezin at        


The follwing article is published in "Physics
in Canada", March/April 1995, pp. 72-73.

Alexander A. Berezin (1) and Geoffrey Hunter (2)

(1) Department of Engineering Physics,
McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario,
Canada, L8S 4L7

(2)  Chemistry Department, York University,
Toronto, Ontario, Canada, M3J 1P3

World-wide network of univeristy research is one of 
the major pillars of the modern civilization. Despite 
that research and intellectual potential is, of course, 
not entirely confined to university campuses, the 
economical, social and cultural progress of today is 
unthinkable without an open forum for new ideas 
facilitated and validated by the international community 
of university scholars. Therefore, the problem of balanced
support for university research within the realm of available
means, despite its appearence as a "local" problem, gains 
the level of international significance.

Numerous critics, speaking primarily of recent 
evolution of the North American model of university
research funding, have indicated damaging consequences
of ferocious competition for funds which are externally
"justified" by the presumption that such strategy fosters
"excellence" in research. At first glance the idea of
"excellence through competition" seems reasonable. It is
easy to sell to politicians and general public. After all,
if it works for business deals or Olympic games why it 
should not work for science ? However, as it often happens,
the argument fails by extension. The problem is that the
currently practiced regulating mechanisms of the externally
monitored competition in science ("grant selection") are
based on several underlying fallacies (myths) briefly
discussed below.

MYTH OF "EXCELLENCE". Despite a nice sound, a careful
scrutiny of this term turns it to an empty clause. The true
measure of the long range impact of research is its
originality, NOT its apparent "soundness" and conformity to
currently dominant paradigms. A truly innovative research
proposal is unlikely to attract a smooth approval by grant
awarding committee or get high peer review marks. By the 
very way these judges are presently selected they tend to
be "paradigm keepers" rather than genuine innovation
searchers. Of course, no defence system is perfect and some
truly innovative reasearch "slips through" and gets funded,
especially if the applicants use proper decoys in their
grant applications. Nevertheless, many academic critics,
e.g., Nobel Prize laureate Albert Szent-Gyorgyi [1], have
pointed out that such fortunate occurences happen AGAINST
the dominant gradient of general suspicion (and often open
intolerance) to new ideas which is typical for almost any
committee of pre-appointed "experts". The viable alternative
to it is to fund RESEARCHERS (not proposals !) on the basis
of their overall record. Such a reform, however, will be
at odds with the present American project-oriented funding
model and also it will diminish the power of the
paper-shuffling bureaucracy and grantsmanship elite.
Therefore the idea "fund researchers, not proposals" [2] is
fiercely resisted by the research bureaucracy.

MYTH OF IMPARTIAL PEER REVIEW. "Impartial peer review"
was, for example, recently stressed in the policy document
"Partnership in Knowledge" issued by the Natural Sciences
and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). By
definition, peers are those who are themselves activly 
involved in the area. Consequently, they are never free
from vested interests in it. While it is, of course, true
that not all of them are evil or dishonest, with all good
will in the world they can't be "impartial". The benefit of
the doubt, therefore, should be with an applicant and a
reasonable implementation of it is a sliding funding scale
[3], not a policy of sharp cut-offs (pop-philosophy of 
"winners and loosers") which is presently the basis of
funding ideology of NSERC and other federal funding agencies 
in Canada and USA. The social purpose of funding agencies
is to ASSIST the university research, they SHOULD NOT have
de facto mandates of directing or controlling the paths of
free inquiry. Their present trend, however, is towards 
precisely the latter - a direct result of the bureaucratic
takeover in any unjustifably blown-up agency.
another, seemingly sensible, but in essence perverted,
extrapolation of a business model to science. This myth has
two components:
   1) the "most promising" research with the best future 
"impact factor" CAN be correctly identified (by peer 
reviewers, expert panels, boards of directors, or whatever),
   2) putting "more money" into the so identified "excellent"
research is bound to make it even "more excellent".

   The first item is wishful thinking based on a presumption
of a "collective wisdom" of expert committees, the second is
based on traditional american aberration that "money can buy
everything". This is not just plainly naive, but also very
costly socially as it leads to an unwarranted overfunding of
many "polically correct" research activities like targetted
mega-projects, "centers of excellence", etc. This myth 
bluntly ignores all crucial non-monetary constraints of any
genuine research. In reality, even Albert Einstein, whose
grant is suddenly increased from, say, $ 50,000 per year 
to $ 200,000 per year WILL NOT produce "four times as many
discoveries". On the contrary, his real productivity will 
likely drop due to additional paperwork, new commitments,
etc. Yes, some modest bonus of, say, 30-50 % above average
for a "really good" (by whichever criteria) research may be
quite appropriate. However, the systematic policy of
preferential (over)funding of some "selected" groups at the
expense of zero "awards" to scores of other equally decent
researchers is nothing short of an arbitrary ideological
apartheid. Its consequences are especially damaging for 
the moral of the younger generation of university

The typical university research program normally evolves
as a result of complicated ("nonlinear") interaction of
personal motivations of researchers and a web of social, 
micro-political and financial aspects of a specific research
case. Rich spectrum of personal motivations can range from 
the pure humility of research curiosity and selfless quest
for truth to a pragmatic (but socially still quite 
acceptable) aim of personal career gains and attaining the
sizable level of authority, influence and institutional
weight. In the present university reward system it is not
that rare that the latter traits detrimentally degenerate 
to the obsession with power control or personal enrichment
It was mentioned earlier by E.Chargaff [4], the present
university system is based, to a large extent, on the 
exploitation of the young: graduate students, postdocs,
assistant professors. So far, the major currency unit in 
science is a "solid" peer-reviewed paper in a well acclaimed
mainstream journal. The more such units are accumulated, the
better is the bargining position in obtaining new funding,
hiring new postdocs, attracting even more new Ph.D. students,
etc. This vicious circle is self-serving and self-propelling.
The role model in today's academic science is "the boss" -
the head of a departmental mini-empire with 10 to 15 (above
listed) members of cheap research labour force with a net
output of some 20 to 40 papers per year. Though they are not
always entirely useless, the per-capita, per-paper 
(and per-dollar) innovation effect of such super-groups is,
as a rule, much lower than of small groups, or even of many
sole researchers. 

In reality, the philosophy of "winners and loosers" has an
overall effect of a coercion of research into the avenue of
established paradigmas ("safe science") to satisfy the peer
reviewers and hence to assure the "fundability" of research
proposals [2]. At the end of the day, it is the very idea
of the peer review-enforced "excellence" through a brutal
"selectivity" which is a sure route to a mediocrity, NOT THE
OTHER WAY AROUND. The bulk of historic data suggests that it
makes more sense to fund MORE researchers at LOWER level to
maintain their research base - many important discoveries were
made with quite modest funding. What history of science
clearly DOES NOT show it that the overfunding of
super-research is a guaranteed roller coster to
super-excellence [5]. On the contary, numerous case studies
show that in accord with the universal Peter principle [6],
super-funded research usually quickly gears to its level of

To make the whole process less hostile and more time- and
resource-efficient, the awards of research grants should
be based exclusively on the long-term track record of the
applicant. Special provisions of a small bona fide grants
can be left for the junior applicants. Under the present
rat-race "competition for excellence" a university professor
with, say, one or two well thought-through papers per year has
virtually no chance to obtain funding at ANY level.
Implementation of the scheme "fund researchers, not proposals"
not only will make the process of funding more democratic and
socially responsible. It will also greatly reduce the paperwork
and raise the overall efficiency of university research. 
However, such reform will ALSO reduce the power base of the
grantsmanship elite. This is the prime reason why several
constructive proposals of this kind (e.g., [2,3] were bluntly
ignored by research funding bureaucracy.

While some ranking of applicants and grant amounts is, of
course, appropriate, the policy of mass "zeroing" of active
university scientists is not only anti-intellectual in its
essence, but also is clearly contrproductive socially and
economically. It is time to re-orient the university system from
the obsolete idea of "competition" (it fails to deliver anyway)
to the cooperation and "win-win" science game. But so far, in a
search for winners the system still follows an old prescription:
"The mass trials have been a great success, comrades. In the
future there will be fewer but better Russians." (Greta Garbo
in "Ninotchka", 1939).


[1]  A. Szent-Gyorgyi, Science, 176, 966 (1972).
[2]  A.A. Berezin and G. Hunter, Canadian Chemical News,
     46 (#3), 4-5 (March 1994).
[3]  D.R. Forsdyke, Nature, 312, 587 (1984).
[4]  E. Chargaff, Biol.& Medicine, 23, 370 (1980).  
[5]  B. Savan, Science Under Siege, CBC Enterprises,
     Toronto, (1988).  
[6]  L.J.Peter and R.Hull, The Peter Principle, Bantam Books,
     1969 (many other editions).


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