I hate grants.
I got into philosophy to think and to read and to teach -- to write articles and blog posts, to meet with grad students, to put together engaging classes for undergrads, to argue with colleagues. That's what I want to do with my time. What I don't want to do is spend lots of time applying for grant money.
And society should feel the same way. I'm an employee of the University of California, my salary funded by taxpayers. Taxpayers want me to teach. Taxpayers should want me to do research too -- if for no other reason than to make me the kind of leading scholar who can teach cutting-edge classes. But taxpayers should not be paying me to spend large amounts of time writing down stuff to convince some committee that I deserve money more than Professors X, Y, and Z deserve money. The amount of time academics spend applying for grants is a giant, loathsome waste of energy of some of the most capable minds in the world.
Plus, why should we want to tie researchers down to what they thought they wanted to do two years ago, when they applied? Times change, ideas mature, opportunities arise!
But society has to fund research, right? So there need to be grants out there to support researchers.
The solution is simple: Give money to researchers for their research without their having to apply, and let them spend it on any reasonable research expenses. That should be the dominant model of grant funding. The committees that award grant money should spend their time finding out who, based on recent performance, is likely to put research money to best use, and they should simply hand those people the money. This will free up the time of those people to do more of their interesting research. Think MacArthur "genius" grants on a small scale.
A few strings should be attached, so that recipients don't just pocket the money as salary. Suppose you're a foundation with $1 million a year to fund philosophical research on Topic X. Here's how you might do it. Form a committee of leading scholars on Topic X. Have them find 40 people who are actively doing excellent work on Topic X -- from post-docs through distinguished professors, some at every level. And then send each of the potential recipients a letter offering them $25,000 over the course of five years, with the following two conditions: (1.) The money be spent only on documented research expenses (provide a list of allowable expenses), and (2.) In the last year they receive money, they come to your annual conference to present some of their research on Topic X. (Right, you now have to host an annual conference on Topic X, where your brilliant researchers can argue with each other. That seems like a good idea anyway, doesn't it?)
(Or make it $10,000 to 100, or $100,000 to 10, or whatever -- depending on the committee's vision.)
A good committee (maybe eventually composed of past recipients) can easily identify a good pool of leading active researchers on Topic X. Look at who is publishing; look at who is presenting at conferences; etc. Those are the people to fund. They want to travel; they want to buy sabbatical time to be able to focus better on their research; they want to spend money on books and equipment and graduate student research assistants. I predict that the committee would end up funding better research overall, with less waste -- at least in philosophy -- than if they wait for applicants to come to them, funding on the basis of shiny-tight-looking proposals.
If the committee is especially interested in encouraging certain sorts of activities, the committee could also offer some funding contingent on executing those activities: $15,000 of research money if the recipient is willing to use it to organize a mini-conference, $4,000 bonus research money if the recipient speaks at four universities in continental Europe, whatever.
To counteract some of the elitism inherent in the proposal, the committee should be especially directed to look for researchers with large teaching loads and non-elite appointments who are able to be research-productive nonetheless. Such people especially deserve funding, and they might be especially likely to put their funding to good use.
I don't think this is the only way research should be funded. The standard model can still play a role: People with no brilliant track record, or who have been overlooked by the committee, should be funded if they can put together excellent proposals. Some people might have especially ambitious visions requiring sums of money larger than the usual amounts. For these cases -- but, I would argue, only for these cases -- the standard granting model makes sense.
(Templeton, are you listening?)
Update March 19:
In the comments, Neil reminded me about people whose salary is paid for by grants. This can easily be added to my system. One way is contingent directed funding: Offer some recipients $N of funding for a post-doc if they are willing to do the search and supervision. Another way is to have people apply for either renewable or non-renewable salaried grants, much as they might apply for a job. For the renewable ones, continuation would be based on actual performance during the lifetime of the grant.
Update April 9:
See Helen De Cruz's excellent post on this at NewAPPS, too.