Workfare for scientists: cheaper AND more productive!

I’m going to get in trouble for the title on this thing, which is meant to be a bit satirical. A helpful reader sent me a link to this abstract in the provocatively-named journal Accountability in Research, which argues that the costs of (a) preparing NSERC grant applications (a cost borne by applicants) and (b) sifting through grant applications in peer review to decide which are worthy (a cost borne by NSERC) is so onerous that it would be cheaper just to give every qualified scientist a $30,000 baseline grant. Here’s their abstract in full; to me, just about every part of it is intriguing:

Using Natural Science and Engineering Research Council Canada (NSERC) statistics, we show that the $40,000 (Canadian) cost of preparation for a grant application and rejection by peer review in 2007 exceeded that of giving every qualified investigator a direct baseline discovery grant of $30,000 (average grant). This means the Canadian Federal Government could institute direct grants for 100% of qualified applicants for the same money. We anticipate that the net result would be more and better research since more research would be conducted at the critical idea or discovery stage. Control of quality is assured through university hiring, promotion and tenure proceedings, journal reviews of submitted work, and the patent process, whose collective scrutiny far exceeds that of grant peer review. The greater efficiency in use of grant funds and increased innovation with baseline funding would provide a means of achieving the goals of the recent Canadian Value for Money and Accountability Review. We suggest that developing countries could leapfrog ahead by adopting from the start science grant systems that encourage innovation.

This paper has provoked an unholy ruckus (sorry, James Lunney) on assorted science blogs; a handy summary of the arguments and counter-arguments is here. From the author of that blog post:

This does not mean, in their proposal, that all of the Canadian money earmarked for science would be given this way – this is still just a small part of it. If you have a big lab or do expensive research and need to apply for much bigger grants, that would be done by the traditional peer review. But in order to get to the point where you have a good proposal, you need to have some neat stuff done (the “preliminary data”). With the proposed system, that preliminary data can be really exciting or revolutionary, something that, as an initial proposal, would never fly by peers.

Would people send out proposals for crap? Some would, I’m sure, but that doesn’t matter. Most would not. Scientists are curious about nature and would like to test their hunches. Some will flop, some will be amazing – it is the latter that this new system is worth doing for, as they may never be done otherwise. Anyway, how many $5,000,000 grants produced amazing stuff? All? I.Don’t. Think.So.

I’m just getting to all this now, after spending much of yesterday writing for our print edition. I hope to read Gordon and Poulin’s paper today, and I’ll be contributing more intelligently to the conversation later today. But the reason why I’m calling attention to this rather erudite debate on a general-interest blog is (a) to show how cumbersome and costly our country’s research apparatus has become and (b) to emphasize an occasional Inkless talking point: because nobody can ever predict where a discovery will come from, it is not necessarily better to add layers of “accountability” mechanisms between a scientist and her lab. Anyway, poke around in all of this, if you’re so inclined, and we’ll continue this conversation this afternoon.

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