Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Funding Transformative Science

If you ever have the pleasure (?!) to sit on a grant review panel at a federal agency, you'll get to hear "the talk". "The talk" is given by a senior administrator of the agency, and is designed to let panel members know that it is OK to fund transformative science - that is, research that will change the way we think about a discipline. Why do we have to listen to the talk? Well, because it is hard to get peer reviewers to recognize something as useful that is going to make them change the way they think! Change is hard. In addition, it is very hard to do preliminary work on something that will change the way you think - because once you've done enough preliminary work to demonstrate that its possible, it isn't transformative anymore. So, hard to get past reviewers and hard to recognize in advance. Hence the talk.

Maybe there's another way. What if agencies simply gave all scientists (and I include social scientists here) some baseline funding? Sounds expensive, but think of how much effort it costs society to review all those grants. Check out this review of several relevant articles and discussion at the link, it's thought provoking.

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