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Funding Research by Lottery?: How Lucky Do You Feel After Submitting a Grant

Reporter: Stephen J. Williams, Ph.D.

A recent article in Nature: “Science Funders Gamble on Grant Lotteries” discusses an odd twist to the anxiety most researchers feel after submitting grants to an agency.  Now, along with the hours of fretting over details and verbiage in a grant application, it appears that not only great science, but the luck of the draw may be necessary to get your work funded.  The article, by David Adam, discusses the funding strategy of the Health Research Council of New Zealand, which since 2015, has implemented a strategy of awarding grants through random selection.  Although limited in scope and size (mainly these grants are on very highly speculative and potentially transformative research and awards are usually less that $150,000 NZD) was meant to promote the applicants in submitting more risky ideas that are usually submitted in traditional peer reviewed grants.

Random chance will create more openness to ideas that are not in the mainstream

–  Margit Osterloh, economist at University of Zurich

Margit also mentions that many mid-ranking applications which are never funded could benefit from such a lottery system.

The Swiss National Science Foundation (SSFS) is also experimenting with this idea of random selection.  The Health Research Council states the process in not entirely random.  A computer selects the projects at random based on a random number generator.  A panel then decides if they are a reasonably good and well written application.

Some researchers have felt this random process could help eliminate much bias that can be baked into the traditional peer review process.  However there are many who feel the current process of peer review panels are a necessary and rigorous step in the granting process, analyzing applications which would most likely have the best chances to succeed based on the rigor of the proposed science.

However Osterloh feels that the lottery idea produces a humbling effect. As Margit said

If you know you have got a grant or a publication which is selected partly randomly, then you will know very well you are not the king of the Universe

Humility in science: a refreshing idea.  However the lottery idea will not mean that scientists need not prepare a careful and well written application.  Applications that are ranked very low would not be in the lottery.  However, if one feels lucky, maybe the obscene hours of worrying about each sentence written, or that figures for preliminary data should be altered at the 11th hour before submission might be a thing of the past.

Of course if you are a lucky person.

 

 

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