FUNDING: Comments to Kevin

Alexander Berezin berezin at MCMAIL.CIS.MCMASTER.CA
Wed Mar 27 13:45:10 EST 1996



On Wed, 27 Mar 1996, kevin wrote:

> In article <4jbp7s$mhd at itssrv1.ucsf.edu>, bgold at itsa.ucsf.edu (Bert Gold) wrote:
> 
> > In essence, our scientific research leaders are telling us that the
> > distribution of scientific research funds currently uses the most
> > equitable possible methods. 
> > 
> > That is why they defend the status quo.
> > 
> > I do not believe this.
> > 
> > I believe that the world of tomorrow can be BETTER than the world
> > of today.
> > 
> > What do you think?
> 
> It depends on what you mean by fair or equitable. Dividing scarce research
> dollars among all researchers regardless of productivity, intelligence,
> creativity, ideas or insight is a recipe for total mediocrity. 

At is very important to distingush between the SIZE of the
grant and the fact that BASIC funds are provided to all
competent researches. In fact OVERfunding (and the ability
to reach it playing within the current system) is the 
main contributor to the mediocrity. Good wook certainly 
should be adequately supported, but NOT by the inceasing
funding to it. The idea 'this work is good, so give more
money to it' is (largely) fallacious: in fact the 
opposite is true. When successful groups are given more
money they disperse their efforts on many projects,
instead of focusing on top priority items. As a result,
extra funding is a DIS-service to a group. (See article
attached below for more details). 

There has
> to be some consideration of what the research money will buy. Some
> researchers will use the money frugally and creatively to address
> important questions. Others will blow it on stupid or pointless
> experiments.
> 
> Obviously, it is very hard to predict who will make real progress. One of
> the only real indicators is past success. 

> This measure obviously favors the senior scientists over 
> those just starting out. 

Not necessarily. A lot of old boys (200 - 300 + papers
folks) in reality not did too much, if the question posed 
will be 'what you really discovered ?' As an experiment
try to ask your collegues question "Dr. A, can
you tell me what Dr.B has really discovered ?" Of course,
in many occasions you will hear very postive things,
but in many cases you will face the puzzlement. 
Even PhD students often unable to say cohesively what 
their boss actually contributed.  
  
> But don't you think
> there needs to be some attempt to judge the quality of the researcher and
> the research project?

Quality of research project should enter the play only
at the very juniour level (e.g. just after PhD people). 
There is no point whatsoever to request it from people
with track record. Apparently, they know better what 
intend to do. And if the next segment of the work 
turn sauer, they will know it at next assessment.   
(In short, for people active in the field writing
'proposals' is nonsense, as well as all the machinery
of 'proposals evaluation').

> 
> I don't know anyone who thinks the present system is perfect or even
> close. It has a very large amount of noise in it and it is very
> conservative. A grant can be funded or triaged depending on the study
> section and the reviewers it gets assigned to. Speculative ideas, no
> matter how exciting, have very little chance of being funded.
> 
> But what is your plan? You sound very bitter about the system as it
> stands. How would you fix it? What system would you use to judge the merit
> of proposals?
> 


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

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.
     
MYTH OF "SUPERFUNDING FOR SUPER-RESEARCH". This is
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),
and
   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
researchers.        

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
schemes. 
  
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
incompetence. 

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).

References

[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, Persp.in 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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