Wednesday, April 15, 2009

What if everyone was funded?

A reader email pointed us to this story (which was also discussed briefly on Sandwalk). A paper published in Accountability in Research (abstract only, subscription required) takes a look at NSERC statistics and finds that the costs for grant application and peer review exceed the cost to give every applicant a grant of $30000.
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.
The first thing that struck me was the $40000 cost for grant application and peer review. That seems ridiculous - almost as ridiculous as the fact that it costs more to review the grants than the money being given out. I also had some of the same concerns regarding quality control - but apparantly these are discussed in the paper itself. Unfortunately, I don't have access so I haven't read the full text, but Coturnix at A Blog Around the Clock has, and has made some detailed comments about the paper and the eliminating the peer review of baseline grants. One of the authors has also joined the discussion there and is offering reprints to those who want to join the conversation.


Anonymous Coward said...

I would bet there would be a huge increase in applications if this were not peer-reviewed, and thus there wouldn't be enough money for everyone. The root of the problem is high costs for the grant review, so the solution it seems to me is to give larger and multiyear grants no? I mean $30K isn't very much.

Kamel said...

Yeah, that was one of my intial thoughts as well, and apparantly it's addressed in the article.

No, $30K isn't much - and I think they're only talking about changes to small, baseline granting procedure and not huge grants and infrastructure funding - I think part of the idea is to stimulate innovative research by giving out more of these small 'discovery' grants. Quality control will presumably take place at the university level where good scientists are hired and the small amount means that funding a cool/risky/innovative idea is just a drop in the bucket if it doesn't pan out.

Scrapping small grants to create more large, multiyear grants doesn't seem like a great idea, even if it skirts the problem of expensive peer-review. Once grants get large, you become more conservative in your funding priorities and money gets funneled into expensive science and safe bets but not necessarily innovative science.

Plus it still doesn't really solve the problem of expensive peer review - maybe less money is wasted because there are fewer grants being reviewed but that $40K per grant is still there. Why is that so high anyways? OK, flying reviewers around costs some cash. What else?

Anonymous Coward said...

So a compromise could be a small but recurrent grant, with a peer-review maybe every 5 years to make sure that it was used productively... It will cut cost 5 fold and still maintain a mechanism for quality control.

Or you could use a probabilistic approach, and randomly review a selection of grants every year. Give a heads-up that you are up for audit, just like the taxman.

Or you could let the PI's to police themselves and vote against each other to eliminate a contestant every grant cycle. Film it, sell the rights to CBC and use the proceed to fund more grants. just kidding.

Bayman said...

I'm all in favor of critical discussion of peer-review and alternative ways to fund science and all that.

However I thought this argument was extremely poorly formed. "Peer-review costs money, therefore it should be eliminated"...??? Not really worth discussing. I was really shocked that an experienced scientist like Moran would come out in support.

However I agree that a $30,000 average operating grant sounds ridiculously small. I doubt this figure applies to biomedical funding instruments like the CIHR. Maybe makes more sense in an NSERC fundable field like bacterial or plant genetics or other cheap model systems if the university is covering more of your overhead and infrastructure costs.

Regardless, the dollar cost of the peer-review process pays back in many more ways other than just the dollar amount of the grant that is awarded at the end of the day. I don't think the numbers need add up.

Anonymous Coward said...

Well it does need to add up if you want the funding structure to be sustainable.

Bayman said...

Yeah ALL the numbers need to add up. Not just two of them.

Bayman said...

Here's what I'm getting at.

Add up the total expenditures made during your PhD. Stipends, reagents, animals, overhead. Now add up the monetary value of the research data knowledge, publications, etc you have produced over that time.

Do those two numbers add up? Are they supposed to? Is research financially sustainable?

Financially "unproductive" activity is where most research funding is spent. Rejected grant proposals are just one of the many financially unrewarding activities that make up the daily activity of the scientist. Not that it's something to aim for, but it's part of the process.

Anonymous said...

However I thought this argument was extremely poorly formed. "Peer-review costs money, therefore it should be eliminated"...??? Not really worth discussing.In fairness, the actual argument is ~25 pages long and most people who are discussing it probably haven't read it.

Dick Gordon said...

Let me know i you’d like a reprint of:

Gordon, R. & B.J. Poulin (2009). Cost of the NSERC science grant peer review system exceeds the cost of giving every qualified researcher a baseline grant. Accountability in Research: Policies and Quality Assurance 16(1), 1-28.

Poulin, B.J. & R. Gordon (2001). How to organize science funding: the new Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR), an opportunity to vastly increase innovation. Canadian Public Policy 27(1), 95-112.

Gordon, R. (1993). Grant agencies versus the search for truth. Accountability in Research: Policies and Quality Assurance 2(4), 297-301.

-Dick Godon,