Science Corner: Universal Science Income

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This is a terrible way to allocate science funding; don’t do this. (Photo by Tax Credits )

Paying for science is not always as exciting as the science itself, unless we’re using science to figure out how to pay for it. (Just don’t get caught in a recursive loop.) And so we have a proposal for a new economic model for science funding along with some simulation studies to demonstrate how it would play out under different conditions. The current system involves a lot of time spent on writing grants, most of which are unsuccessful, and on reviewing those grants, creating expensive overhead even under the best circumstances. Actual circumstances might not be the best, since new investigators are having increasing difficulty getting funded, and since the review process can be complicated by questions like how to get a fair and thorough review in small fields where the qualified reviewers might all be competing for the funds in question. Hence the interest in alternatives.

The proposed modification does away with grants and reviews altogether. Instead, everyone gets a fixed piece of the pie with the stipulation that they must pass some fraction of it on to other scientists. To my mind, that basically means that we are trading the cost of gatekeeping for the cost of funding more research that may not go anywhere. I can appreciate the appeal of erring on the side of funding more science. And the simulation models demonstrate that by adjusting how much each scientist has to share and with whom they may or may not share it, you can get different funding distributions including something akin to current outcomes and also more equitable scenarios.

What the simulations can’t show is whether an alternative funding arrangement will produce more or better science. So it’s exciting to read that the Dutch are actually running the experiment. I’ll be curious to see how they handle the questions this model raises. How do you account for wide ranges of needs, where some experiments require particle accelerators or biosafety level 4 protections while others can be done on a commodity computer with Internet access? Does the feedback from grant reviews on protocols and budget decisions serve a useful role and can it be replicated in a system with no funding review? Who gets to be considered a scientist receiving a share of funding in the first place? Will scientists actually make the same kinds of decisions about how to share their allocation that the model assumes or predicts they will? After all, humans aren’t always the rational actors economic models prefer them to be.

What is your experience with the scientific funding process? Do you think it should be left alone, tweaked, or overhauled? How would you change it if you could?

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. His book Faith across the Multiverse is available from Hendrickson.

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