Funding sharing model would see grant proposals ditched

A Google-inspired crowdfunding system for evaluating and funding research could provide a better alternative to peer review, US researchers claim. They say that their system would save both time and money, as well as encouraging innovation.

The scientific community invests much of its time and energy writing and reviewing research proposals, but only a minority of proposals receive funding. ‘There is a strong sense in the scientific community that things could be improved,’ says lead author Johan Bollen of Indiana University.

‘You could think of it as a Google-inspired crowdfunding system that encourages all researchers to make autonomous decisions’
Inspired by the mathematical models used to search the internet for relevant information, Bollen and his colleagues propose that funding agencies give all scientists within their remit an unconditional, equal amount of money each year. Each researcher would have to pass on a fixed percentage of their previous year’s funding to other scientists whom they think would make best use of the money. So every year, researchers would receive a fixed basic grant combined with funding donated by their peers.

‘You could think of it as a Google-inspired crowdfunding system that encourages all researchers to make autonomous, individual funding decisions towards people, not projects or proposals,’ says Bollen. ‘All you need is a centralised website where researchers could log in, enter the names of the scientists they chose to donate to, and specify how much they each should receive.’

Bollen claims this approach would drastically reduce costs associated with peer review, and liberate researchers from the time-consuming process of submitting and reviewing grant proposals. It could also reduce the uncertainty associated with funding cycles, give researchers more flexibility and allow the community to fund riskier projects. Funding agencies and governments could still retain a guiding role if, for example, they varied the base funding rate to temporarily inject more money into certain areas.

The team acknowledges that the system would require stringent conflict‐of‐interest rules. For example, scientists would need to be prevented from donating to themselves or close collaborators, and funding decisions would remain confidential.

‘It’s a fascinating idea and one that I find attractive,’ comments Adam Eyre-Walker of the University of Sussex, who has investigated the reliability of researchers at judging research. ‘It’s clear from the assessment of papers that most of us disagree about what science is the most important, and I suspect that this will carry through the assessment of grants. Furthermore, I suspect that grant review panels are subject to a certain level of cronyism, so anything that distributes the decision about research funding more broadly is to be welcomed.’ The system could potentially skew science away from expensive projects to the cheaper, he says, which could be a good thing, but he has some doubts overall about whether it would work in practice.

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