Is science sometimes in danger of getting tunnel vision? Recently published ebook author, Ian Miller, looks at other possible theories arising from data that we think we understand. Can looking problems in a different light give scientists a different perspective?

Science Funding

This may seem an odd topic to discuss under alternative theories, but that depends on what you think a theory is. I argue that whoever sets up a system has a theory that it will work. They do not know, which makes it a theory, and as a theory it should be testable. That such politically based theories seldom seem to be subjected to evidence-based tests is a clear failure, but we could also argue that when scientists, whose business it is to test theories, remain silent then they fail.
I am far from convinced that current systems work properly, although that comment comes with a very big caveat, namely my experience is in New Zealand (I was on a funding panel for approximately 10 years, and I also applied for funding from time to time, so I know "both sides") and what happens here may not be even approximately typical of what happens elsewhere. In this context, comments or a discussion would be welcome.
The most obvious problem that I found on a funding panel was that there was one set of applications that were obviously excellent and they were funded, one set that should be put out of its misery and was, but unfortunately there was a substantial set in the middle that appeared to be highly to reasonably desirable, but had to be divided somewhere simply because there were not enough funds. Where to draw the line on these was very difficult, particularly since most if not all of them lay outside the specific experience of the panelists.
External referees were of surprisingly little help. Only too often, a referee would be an acquaintance of the applicant (this is almost inevitable in narrow fields, even when they were selected internationally), or alternatively, the referee became obsessively critical. Rather surprisingly, very few referees did a really competent job, and in its own way, that made the problem more difficult because how do you compare a rating of 5 (out of 10) from a clearly competent report, with an 8 from a fairly light airbrush? Some applicants hurt themselves (and I fell into this category more than once) by not giving too much away because they did not feel that all referees had adequate integrity. I had seen such an example when, somewhat unsportingly, I tracked referees' subsequent activity in respect to applications. Of course there is a corollary: it is unfair to dump something on a referee's desk and block the contents from his future when he may very well have had similar ideas. In short, I do not feel such use of referees is valid other than possibly for purely academic applications.
The next problem arose from the politics. Those who provide the funds face a barrage of issues, and they end up by breaking the first rule of strategy: they impose too many objectives by trying to make the money do too many things.  In my opinion, a grant of funds should be directed primarily at one objective. Of course there can be a number of other benefits, but what tends to happen when politicians impose too many objectives is that a nightmare of bureaucracy results and very complicated applications turn up with all sorts of statements that in many cases are little better than arm-waving.
So, what should be done? In my opinion, funding should be based on past performance ratings, with emphasis on the recent past. The advantage would be that much less time and money would be wasted on bureaucracy and the researchers could spend more time doing research. The young scientist should start in an established group, and at some stage be "given a chance". Then, perhaps, another. The more successful can then get on with it, with little more to worry about than their maintaining a success rate. Public funds might be preferentially given in certain areas, say, but only to those with sufficient expertise. The downside of this proposal, of course, is how to assess past performance? Nevertheless, such difficulties will always be with us, and I rather suspect that "where to draw the line" is usually based on past performance anyway, except that the assessment is more based on "public reputation" because considered assessment had not been done.
What do you think? I would be interested in responses. As a personal disclaimer, I have no current personal interest in seeking such funding.
Posted by Ian Miller on Oct 29, 2011 12:30 AM Europe/London

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