Skepticism about science and medicine

In search of disinterested science

Dysfunctional research funding

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2012/12/26

Contemporary scientific activity is marked by cutthroat competition and unconscionable conflicts of interest stemming from commercial and political sources (From Dawn to Decadence: The Three Ages of Modern Science, 2012/12/03 ).

One consequence is that researchers waste inordinate time and effort evolving proposals for funding, because only a small proportion of those proposals succeed (80% unemployment?! The research system is broken, 2012/12/11).

So the incentives are very great, to find some quite startling tidbit that will make a proposal stand out from the crowd. Since genuine discoveries that are genuinely startling are quite rare, an increasing number of would-be researchers have been making deliberately fraudulent claims, not only in their grant proposals but in their research publications as well (Dishonesty and dysfunction in science, 2012/12/16). That adds significantly and tragically to the dysfunctionality of the research system, misleading some unknown number of other researchers and wasting the time and effort of reviewers and editors and science writers.

In this hothouse environment of cutthroat competition and external commercial and political influence, what’s funded is often not the best science: for example, the majority of the most highly cited authors publishing biomedical research did not have funding from the National Institutes of Health, which is by far the greatest source of funding for such research (1). Evidently the manner in which research is funded does not conduce to supporting the best people or the best projects; perhaps because “Collegiality and careerism trump critical questions and bold new ideas” (2), not unexpected since “a large majority of the current members of NIH study sections — the people who recommend which grants to fund — do have NIH funding for their work irrespective of their citation impact, which is typically modest” (1; emphasis added).
It’s a universal experience that bureaucracies tend to favor banal mediocrities over creative people who tend to be prickly, unreasonable prima donnas. But as George Bernard Shaw noted long ago, progress depends on the unreasonable ones.

One possible amelioration of the system would be to fund people rather than projects, to direct funds toward the most already-proven creative, competent people rather than attempting to discern from promises in grant proposals what is most likely to bear valuable fruit (3). After all, the greatest advances have come by serendipity and because unusual individuals took note of details that most others had overlooked.

But before solutions can be contemplated, the underlying problems need to be fully understood. One is that the demand has far outstripped the available funds [this sentence is corrected from an earlier version, credit to Richard Karpinski for catching this]. Another is that this has exacerbated the natural tendency of the mainstream to be dogmatically contemptuous of non-mainstream approaches. Those who are prominent in the mainstream naturally wish to keep as much as possible of available resources for work that conforms to their own views. But the history of science is quite clear that the greatest advances have been those that overturned the mainstream consensus — eventually, after strong resistance (46).

Therefore and unfortunately, choosing the best people — those most likely to spur the greatest progress — is nowadays as problematic as choosing the best projects. A significant aspect of the present dysfunctionality is the hegemony exercised by the mainstream consensus in more and more fields (7). That hegemony determines the judgments made as to who the best people are. So a necessary part of ameliorating the unsatisfactory current situation is to find procedures that will bring funding to ventures currently dismissed or ignored by the mainstream hegemony. At present, creatively unorthodox individuals have few places to which they can turn: the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine  in NIH and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency  (DARPA) in the Department of Defense are the significant ones, and each has severely limited funds. Private foundations for the most part seek to protect their reputation by using well established advisers, i.e. people steeped in the mainstream beliefs. By contrast, in the 1950s and 1960s researchers in many sciences had more than a few possible sources of research funding from a variety of federal agencies, very much including separate Army, Navy, and Air Force Research Offices, a productive situation that was effectively closed by the Mansfield Amendments (8) which limited federal agencies (other than the National Science Foundation and NIH) to supporting applied and not basic research.

One part of a solution might be to require that all advisory panels, review panels, and the like include competent, accomplished experts who are also known dissenters from the mainstream view. A similar approach would be to require that a certain percentage (say 5-10%) of research funds on any given topic be allotted to non-mainstream approaches. Without something like that, the mainstream hegemony will continue to ensure that banal mediocrity is funded to the exclusion of brilliant ideas and truly ground-breaking work.

————————————————
(1) Joshua M. Nicholson and John P. A. Ioannidis, “Conform and be funded”,
Nature 492 (2012) 34-6
(2) Joshua M. Nicholson, “Collegiality and careerism trump critical questions
and bold new ideas: A student’s perspective and solution”,
BioEssays 34 (#6, 2012) 448-50
(3) John P. A. Ioannidis, “Fund people not projects”, Nature 477 (2011) 529-31
(4) Bernard Barber, “Resistance by scientists to scientific discovery”,
Science 134 (1961) 596-602
(5) Gunther Stent, “Prematurity and uniqueness in scientific discovery”,
Scientific American, December 1972, 84-93
(6) Ernest B. Hook (ed)., Prematurity in Scientific Discovery: On Resistance and
Neglect
, University of California Press, 2002
(7) Henry H. Bauer, Dogmatism  in Science and Medicine:
How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth
,
McFarland, 2012
(8) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mike_Mansfield:
The Mansfield Amendment of 1969, “passed as part of the fiscal year 1970 Military Authorization Act (Public Law 91-121) prohibited military funding of research that lacked a direct or apparent relationship to specific military function. Through subsequent modification the Mansfield amendment moved the Department of Defense toward the support of more short-term applied research in universities.” … This amendment affected the Military Services, for example research funding by the Office of Naval Research (ONR)….
The Mansfield Amendment of 1973 expressly limited appropriations for defense research through ARPA, which is largely independent of the Military Services, to projects with direct military application.…

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3 Responses to “Dysfunctional research funding”

  1. “One is that the available funds have far outstripped the demand.” is exactly the opposite of what I think you mean.

    • Henry Bauer said

      Richard Karpinski:
      Bless you for catching this, now corrected with appropriate credit 🙂

  2. The general problem also occurs in politics, especially when crossed with economics. This is well illustrated in Richard Wolff’s videos:

    http://rdwolff.com/articles/16 et al

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