Monday, March 18, 2013

How to Give $1 Million a Year to Philosophers

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.


Daniel said...

Robin Hanson (an economist at George Mason) has been saying stuff like this for a long time. Not specifically about philosophers, but about research in general.

Neil said...

What about those of us dependent on grants? Leaves us in the cold....

Leon Leontyev said...

This is such a no-brainer. (Not to undermine the value of your post, but rather to highlight how well you're stating what is on our minds already).

There is this view around (among some academics) that the powers that be think that academics have too much time on their hands anyway, and that they shouldn't be complaining. If that is indeed the case, then I imagine it's going to be hard convincing anyone who isn't already on board.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Daniel: Thanks for the tip. I'll look that up. I'm not surprised.

Neil: There should still be a mechanism to accommodate that case, though I admit that the funding structure I propose would leave less money for people purely on grant money. I don't think it's inconsistent with the spirit of my approach for an organization to aim to have X number of grant-funded research-only appointments. One possibility would be to have researchers recruited into such appointments and then once recruited judged based on results rather than on an application process for a new grant later.

Leon: I haven't heard people saying it, but maybe I haven't been listening in the right places (like to Robin Hanson). Maybe thinking on this is more advanced in Australia, where grant applications consume a larger proportion of philosophers' time than in the US.

Roderic said...

Just think of grant applications as part of a job creation scheme that has no bearing on teaching and research. It creates jobs for the organisationally minded, and for those willing to sign up as referees. It's a kind of charity work -- be kind! Write the grant quickly! (I am joking -- what else can one do in the face of stupidity!)

Callan S. said...

Historically, did it have such a structure to begin with - then people started sending letters to the commitee and so on?

What is the whole grant thing anyway? Is it that we just don't have enough money to pay you all to do yo thang? So we'll just pay some of you, here and there? If such is the case, I'd think a random distribution (where you don't get a second grant until roughly everyone else has had their first) would be for the best.

Thing is, I imagine it seems some work is more important than that, for some folk.

juliusz said...

Concerning Callan's point about random distribution, I think it is worth mentioning that some time ago Aaron Sloman proposed a lottery based money allocation system, here: .

Unknown said...

" $4,000 bonus research money if the recipient speaks at four universities in continental Europe, whatever." I hate to break the news, but many of us are at institutions that provide hardly any travel money - so we don't have this sort of opportunity. If I want to travel to speak at conferences, I'm told that I need to obtain grant money to pay for it!

Anonymous said...

Wait, so instead of lots of specialised individuals spending time coming up with a project to get funding, a committee of specialised individuals will spend time deciding on a topic and picking individuals to give money to? And how do you convince a funding body that your topic X is worth organising a committee for? Surely you'd have to apply somehow ...

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

David: Right! That's the point!

Anon: I'm not understanding your concern. How does the application process resolve the potential issue?

Wren said...

Thinking about your work, writing it up for colleagues, getting feedback from them which makes it better, or at least prods you to think more deeply. What's so bad about that?

There's only so much money to go around. Seems like you would rather a bureaucrat decide who gets it than peer review grant systems?

It seems to me the bad thing about writing grants is not getting arguments there

Helen said...

Eric: a bit belated in the discussion, but here are my 5 c on the grantmaking conundrum:
I think the grantmaking climate as it is now is unfair (it doesn't so much reward excellence but past track record, it disfavors people from small departments and women), and enormously wasteful of time and energy. Overall, I think either (1) a purely random allocation of grant money or (2) a minimal time investment grant culture (with double blind review of 500-word abstracts would be fairer and waste less valuable time and resources. Not only thinking about the waste of time of project writers, but also of referees.