Prompted by a question from Times science correspondent Hannah Devlin on Twitter, some thoughts on whether science funders should concentrate on funding people or funding projects…
There appears to be growing interest in the idea of channeling funding through individuals. In the last few years, we’ve seen the Wellcome Trust redirect money towards people. EPSRC and other research councils are interested too. Paul Nurse and other senior scientists unsurprisingly support the idea that people not unlike themselves should be given more money, more security and more freedom, arguing that only the top scientists are able to identify and address the big scientific questions. The European Research Council was created in this mould, and has demonstrated some success, now arguing for a greater share of the European research pot.
The evidence is pretty persuasive that concentrating resources on the best people produces good science. When we were writing the Scientific Century report at the Royal Society, we used a nice study comparing researchers funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the National Institutes of Health (pdf) which made a compelling case for longer-term funding of the best people. And, serendipitously, two physicists supported by the Royal Society itself, which also operates this way, happened to win a Nobel Prize.
But this argument assumes that we are just interested in scientific excellence, as measured by scientists, for scientists. There are many other reasons to fund science. What do we lose in the move away from funding projects to funding people? The effect of this trend will be increased concentration of the research base. Sociologist of Science Robert Merton described the ‘Matthew effect’ of research funding (pdf):
“For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” (Matthew 25:29, in case you care)
There are various pressures towards greater concentration of money and prestige in small groups of universities, departments and people. And we can argue that policy should act against these, rather than reinforce them. Rather than supporting a closed shop, policy should be interested in creating a sustainable and diverse science base, supporting groups like young scientists and women scientists and encouraging new sorts of science taking place in new ways, in new places. As with any other area, innovation in research comes from unexpected places, often from the fringes or intersections of disciplines. Diversity in science is a good thing, and should be encouraged.
Governments are clearly also interested in more than science-for-science’s-sake. Funding science by concentrating money on the best people may lead to economic impact, public value and useful strategic science, but it’s not a great way of ensuring it.
So I guess all of this is an argument for greater clarity. Government needs to be clear about what it wants from science and scientists need to stop pretending that all outcomes are best served with unfettered autonomy. The recipe for a healthy and productive science base is almost certainly to mix up all of these sorts of things. Given that the Wellcome Trust have gone down the route of funding people, maybe the sensible thing for government to do is tip in the other direction to rebalance the system…
P.S. One thing that’s puzzled me about this policy issue is that Helga Nowotny, the woman that so lucidly described the arrival of Mode 2 science, in which research becomes inseparable from its applications, would end up running the European Research Council, an avowedly Mode 1 organisation.