Thursday, July 01, 2010

Science funding and productivity

These are interesting times for the practice and funding of science. The traditional model of fee-for-subscription peer-reviewed academic journals is looking more and more outdated. Scientific funding is increasingly competitive and dependent on salesmanship and networking rather than scientific merit.

We Must Stop the Avalanche of Low-Quality Research argues that scientists are drowning in a sea of mediocre papers that nobody reads.

In economic terms, attention is the scarce resource. Electronic publishing is dirt cheap, so it makes sense to publish even weak or negative results. But human attention is expensive and the peer review process is time consuming and unfunded. There needs to be a better mechanism for ranking the quality and importance of papers, so that scarce attention can be allocated efficiently.

Certainly, counting papers is as poor a metric of scientific output as counting lines of code is of programmer productivity.

Scientists should be scientists, not fund raisers. Real Lives and White Lies in the Funding of Scientific Research details the tyranny of grant applications.

One proposed improvement is a track system, in which a researcher would be placed into a funding category and reviewed for productivity every five years and moved up or down to higher or lower tracks accordingly. Emphasis would shift from plans to outcomes.

Stanford bioengineering professor Steven Quake makes a similar point in the New York Times:

As we consider the monumental challenges facing our generation — climate change, energy needs and health care — and look to science for solutions, it would behoove us to remember that it is almost impossible to predict where the next great discoveries will be made — and thus we should invest broadly and let scientists off their leashes.

One has to wonder how well science funding will hold up in the face of the gaping government deficits in most western countries.

Meanwhile, China is becoming scientific superpower.

Luo Minmin, 37, a neurobiologist, returned to China six years ago after getting his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania and completing a postdoctoral research stint at Duke. Luo said he has a big budget at NIBS and greater research freedom than he would have in the United States. "If I had stayed in America, the chances of making a discovery would have been lower," he said. "Here, people are willing to take risks. They give you money, and essentially you can do whatever you want."

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