A recurring TiB theme is how to improve the productivity of science (see, e.g., TiB 92, TiB 102, TiB 113
), so I’m delighted that super blogger Jose Luis Ricon
has started a series on the topic, “Fund People Not Projects” (“FPNP”). The first
looks at some programmes that do fund individual scientists and the second
at the accuracy of pre-grant peer review (i.e. can we identify good research before it happens?). Both are long but worth your time.
The first post looks at the apparent extraordinary success of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in funding scientists on the basis on talent rather than a proposed project. One evaluation suggests that researchers funded in this way are almost twice as likely to produce “breakthrough work”. The optimistic hypothesis is that this is because such grants are long and encourage risky, fundamental work, rather than incrementalism (see TiB 103
). José examines this in detail and concludes, alas, that it’s not quite as rosy as all that (at least not in terms of HHMI’s causal
I do have some intellectual skin in the game here in that my entire career
is built on the FPNP thesis. I think one of the most important arguments in its favour is something José mentions in passing:
Funders don’t encounter a pool of projects passively waiting to be funded; rather projects are devised by researchers depending on what they expect will get funded
The same applies to startups. One reason I think funding people pre-company
is so important is that the kinds of startups that get built are at least in part a function of founder incentives: if you give people who might not otherwise start a company time and space to do so, you (should) get companies that otherwise wouldn’t exist at all.