How would you fund science?
Some days ago, science funding made an important step towards arriving in the web era: Fundscience.org — a non-profit platform dedicated to opening up science funding to the eyes of the interested public — issued its first call for submissions of research proposals (deadline for submissions: April 1). Both the number of grants available in this first round (up to 3; yes, three) and their volume (up to US$ 50,000, or packages of 5,000 CPU cycles) are small in comparison to what established science funders have on offer but the call's conditions contain the seed of a new culture in science funding, one in which funding decisions are made less and less behind closed doors.
Why is this important? OK, sit back. Remember the Olympics that just ended? Science funding, in a sense, is like some kinds of sports (think figure skating) in that decisions are being made by a committee. However, the science funding committees evaluate only planned choreographies (though they take into account edited records of actual performances in the past). What is more, participating athletes (let alone the public), and often even committee members do not know each other's identity, and the whole process of selecting a winner is secret. What would you think of a sports champion elected that way? Or, the other way round, wouldn't it be interesting to be a spectator in the science funding sports, rather than reading hype-cycling "scientists found out" reports? After all, this is supposed to be a venue for creativity and sharp minds, both of which stand good chances of attracting attention.
Science funding is also supposed to spur innovation (like combining ice skating and elements of ballroom dance to what is now known as ice dancing). But if ice dancing has never been performed before, people who are experienced in either ice skating or ballroom dance, or in areas yet further away, are to decide whether such a new kind of choreographies stands any chances of winning in future major championships. How good are their chances to perform well on this task? Well, I don't know, but they are certainly drastically slimmer than those of identifying which of a set of published articles (which contain the edited records of ice dances whose original choreographies got indeed funded) are going to be considered a masterpiece three years later. This latter experiment has actually been performed by Wellcome Trust researchers, and although the committee members performed well overall in their predictions, they missed a lot of jewels too.
Is research grant peer review broken, then? Not necessarily, especially if it is performed in public and extended afterwards. This requires new approaches to science funding as a whole — a wider use of baseline grants awarded to faculty on a semi-automated basis is one possibility, science prizes are another, and the way now started by Fundscience has also high potential. Just imagine if all current research proposals (or a significant proportion thereof) were public — how much resources and researchers' life times could be saved (and how much more sustainable science could become) by avoiding reinventions of the wheel and concentrating on collaboration with competent partners instead.
So, how would you fund science?