When it comes to science - its the economy stupid.

Jeff Leek

I read a lot of articles about what is going wrong with science:

These articles always point to the “incentives” in science and how they don’t align with how we’d like scientists to work. These discussions often frustrate me because they almost always boil down to asking scientists (especially and often junior scientists) to make some kind of change for public good without any guarantee that they are going to be ok. I’ve seen an acceleration/accumulation of people who are focusing on these issues, I think largely  because it is now possible to make a very nice career by pointing out how other people are doing science wrong.

The issue I have is that the people who propose unilateral moves seem to care less that science is both (a) a calling and (b) a career for most people. I do science because I love it. I do science because I want to discover new things about the world. It is a direct extension of the wonder and excitement I had about the world when I was a little kid. But science is also a career for me. It matters if I get my next grant, if I get my next paper. Why? Because I want to be able to support myself and my family.

The issue with incentives is that talking about them costs nothing, but actually changing them is expensive. Right now our system, broadly defined, rewards (a) productivity - lots of papers, (b) cleverness - coming up with an idea first, and (c) measures of prestige - journal titles, job titles, etc. This is because there are tons of people going for a relatively small amount of grant money. More importantly, that money is decided on by processes that are both peer reviewed and political.

Suppose that you wanted to change those incentives to something else. Here is a small list of things I would like:

The key problem isn’t publishing, or code, or reproducibility, or even data analysis.

The key problem is that the fundamental model by which we fund science is completely broken. 

The model now is that you have to come up with an idea every couple of years then “sell” it to funders, your peers, etc. This is the source of the following problems:

If we really want to have any measurable impact on science we need to solve the funding model. The solution is actually pretty simple. We need to give out 20+ year grants to people who meet minimum qualifications. These grants would cover their own salary plus one or two people and the minimum necessary equipment.

The criteria for getting or renewing these grants should not be things  like Nature papers or number of citations. It has to be designed to incentivize the things that we want to (mine are listed above). So if I was going to define the criteria for meeting the standards people would have to be:

More importantly these grants should be given out for a very long term (20+ years) and not be tied to a specific institution. This would allow people to have flexible careers and to target bigger picture problems. We saw the benefits of people working on problems they weren’t originally funded to work on with research on the Zika virus.

These grants need to be awarded using a rigorous peer review system just like the NIH, HHMI, and other organizations use to ensure we are identifying scientists with potential early in their careers and letting them flourish. But they’d be given out in a different matter. I’m very confident in a peer review to detect the difference between psuedo-science and real science, or complete hype and realistic improvement. But I’m much less confident in the ability of peer review to accurately distinguish “important” from “not important” research. So I think we should consider seriously the lottery for these grants.

Each year all eligible scientists who meet some minimum entry requirements submit proposals for what they’d like to do scientifically. Each year those proposals are reviewed to make sure they meet the very minimum bar (are they scientific? do they have relevant training at all?). Among all the (very large) class of people who pass that bar we hold a lottery. We take the number of research dollars and divide it up to give the maximum number of these grants possible.  These grants might be pretty small - just enough to fund the person’s salary and maybe one or two students/postdocs. To make this works for labs that required equipment there would have to be cooperative arrangements between multiple independent indviduals to fund/sustain equipment they needed. Renewal of these grants would happen as long as you were posting your code/data online, you were meeting peer review requirements, and responding to inquires about your work.

One thing we’d do to fund this model is eliminate/reduce large-scale projects and super well funded labs. Instead of having 30 postdocs in a well funded lab, you’d have some fraction of those people funded as independent investigators right from the get-go. If we wanted to run a massive large scale program that would be out of a very specific pot of money that would have to be saved up and spent, completely outside of the pot of money for investigator-initiated grants. That would reduce the hierarchy in the system, reduce pressure that leads to bad incentive, and give us the best chance to fund creative, long term thinking science.

Regardless of whether you like my proposal or not, I hope that people will start focusing on how to change the incentives, even when that means doing something big or potentially costly.