Thursday, November 20, 2008

Against Grant Applications

Psychologists -- and some philosophers -- spend a huge amount of time seeking grant money; I'm sure so also for many of the other sciences. I've become increasingly convinced that this is not the best way for leading researchers to be employing their time and talents. What if granting agencies simply selected (through a rotating committee of experts) a large number of established researchers and simply gave them research money without their having to ask, tracking only that it has been used for legitimate research purposes? There would still have to be ample room of course for unselected researchers to submit applications to obtain research funds and for researchers (selected or not) to submit applications for unusually large disbursements for especially worthy and expensive projects.

Wouldn't that give a lot of people more time simply to do their work?

Update, Nov. 21:
Driving home after posting this yesterday, I found myself anticipating comments asserting that such a policy would increase the gap between the academic haves and have-nots. I think that's a legitimate concern, but one that could be addressed by having the granting committee be especially energetic about looking for merit in junior researchers and outside the top schools.


Anonymous said...

i would echo that concern eric, adding that grant panels would likely look for talent by asking academic haves for recommendations and those making recommendations may have their own biases which favor their former students, students of friends or people working on their own pet projects-.

Anonymous said...

the question is how do they find the researchers, particularly those that are junior and outside the top schools. the end result might start to look very much like the application method (via the haves) except having a smaller pool with a chance of getting the grants.

Still I like the idea of not having to apply - it is just that it might require quite a bit of regulation of how the granting agency works.


Anonymous said...

two issues:

- Grants are generally for projects, not people. (this might be easy to resolve)

- Granting agencies tend to give grants to people they know, streamlining the process may reinforce this problem rather than reducing it. How do you keep "those with grants" from being a clique? (this one is harder)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes, all three of you have pointed to more or less the same problem. I agree it's a serious issue; but it's not like the current granting system is particularly good on this issue either. Since the amount of time saved by researchers would be immense, I think it would be worth thinking creatively about ways to avoid the clique problem.

For example, one could consider rotating committees consisting of, say, randomly selected members of academic societies (or of people presenting on the program) -- or if that's too radical some other procedure with high committee turnover. Merit could be assessed in part by relatively objective measures such as publication in leading disciplinary journals. Committee members might be required to recuse themselves from evaluating people in their own departments, former students, and people with whom they have co-authored. Etc.

Keith Frankish said...

Why not a lottery? Issue tickets to any applicant who meets certain criteria (say, a good track record + 3 nominations + no recent grant), then draw the names out of a hat. Usual reporting and follow-up procedures. I bet it would produce work of a similar quality, and it would save everyone a huge amount of time.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting idea, Keith! I'd like to see granting agencies think creatively about new ways to do things.

Anonymous said...

Pretty much the whole point of grant applications is to make the process look fair and merit-driven -- when everyone knows the money and the publishers will always go to research-one faculty and largely ignore the rest.

Anonymous said...

Also consider that those who hold the purse-strings (be they public or private agencies) are never going to abandon control against projects that threaten their ideological interests, and for those projects that promise to further them. It's simple politics.

At the very least they want the nerds to sing and dance for them, just to affirm who's really in charge. Simple anthropology.