Posted tagged ‘Research’

More on a Modest Proposal

November 10, 2008

In this post, I laid out a first marker for what the new administration could do for science, calling  for an expansion of support for young scientists and engineers — grad students, post docs and new principal investigators.

For the new PIs, I suggested an increase in the number and shift in the emphasis of what are now called Faculty Early Career Development Program grants, arguing that the availability of no-strings attached discretionary research funds for young scholars would have a disproportionate bang for the buck.

It seems like a no-brainer to me (sorry), but I realize that I didn’t explain clearly enough what I meant by “no strings” after an email exchange with Balloon Juice’s estimable Tim, himself a young scientist at precisely the point in his career I would aim to boost with such an initiative.

Tim told me that he was troubled by my suggestion because he sees a competitive process for funding to be essential.

I agree, and here’s what I did not make clear:  the grants should be highly competitive, and awarded as nearly meritocratically as any selective process staffed by humans can be.  But the criteria for selection should, imho, be different from the common run of federal grants.

Currently 425 early career grants get made each year, with up to twenty getting the honorary distinction of being “Presidential.”

The grant applications require a very specific description of the planned research and educational goals of the grantee.  In exchange, the winners get approximately $80,000/year for five years to advance those goals.

What I’m suggesting is that in addition to these conventional grants we add more — maybe a hundred or even more.  Rather than supporting specific projects or proposed experiments, these grants should be awarded on the basis of demonstrated intellectual excellence — the best arguments pi’s can make for their approach to their discipline and research program.

Once awarded, these grants would be true discretionary money — that’s where the no-strings business comes in.  This is intended to fund the best ideas people can come up with as they do their work, day to day, month over month.

But getting the money — that should be competitive as all hell.

Also, as an addendum.  On my previous post, commenter Upnorth Minnesota asked “Just wondering if you see any place in this incentive plan for people who are thinking, creating, inventing outside the hallowed halls of academe? or is their work to hard to legitimize?”

Two answers:  I can see places for people here in institutions other than universities — but I don’t think that the Salk Institute or the Institute for Advanced Studies, e.g., is quite what you had in mind.  I think that researchers who are both outside the academy and industry are hard to evaluate, unless they take part in the daily life of academic science to the extent of submitting work to peer review, attending conferences and so on.  If someone is actually doing good work at the stages of their careers that I’m talking about here, I find it hard to believe that they could not forge some kind of association with the academy.

(Also as a blunt problem of logistics, you have to house the grant somewhere, and it’s far easier to do so through an institution that is familiar with the mechanics of accounting for federal money than trying to do so on your garage laptop.  Believe me, as an occasionally NSF supported film maker, I know.)

One thing I do believe is that this idea is not appropriate for industry based scientists, even those doing basic research.  The goals and culture of knowledge exchange of commercial labs are appropriately different from those of the academy (though I know the distinction is narrowing in all kinds of ways).  There are pathways for federal funding of innovative or speculative research within the private economy — see the NIH’s SBIR program for an example.

In that context, I’d prefer to see the kind of true blue sky money proposed above reserved for that part of our scientific research community already most licensed to pursue curiousity without regard for specific commercial outcomes — and for all the industry/academy ties that certainly muddy the picture, that still means the university/not-for-profit research world.

Image:  “Boyle’s Self Flowing Flask” Scanned without alteration from Fig. 54 in Arthur W.J.G. Ord-Hume’s Perpetual Motion, the history of an obsession. Allen & Unwin, 1977, St. Martins Press, 1977. It also appears in Dirck’s books and many other places.