New ways to pay for research can boost scientific progress

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Hoh can Will science be alien? Since the laws of nature are the same everywhere, aliens will make the same discoveries as humans—that matter is made of atoms, say, or that life develops through evolution. But the results may be the same, the aliens are unlikely to come up with the same methods to approach them. It would be wonderful if little green men invented universities, funding committees, a tenure system and all the other trappings of modern academic life.

The thought experiment dreamed up by Michael Nielsen, a physicist, and Kanjin Qiu, an entrepreneur, was no mere flight of fancy. It was part of an essay published last year that pointed out that the way modern science is organized is not the only way, and perhaps not the best way. Experimenting with different types of institutions, or novel ways of transferring research money, can help fix what the authors call “a discovery ecosystem in situ.”

Photo: The Economist

Dr. Nielsen and Ms. Qi are among a band of researchers who believe that scientific progress is slowing. A 2020 paper by economists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Stanford University concluded that American research productivity is declining, with small gains in knowledge requiring more effort. A second paper published in January of this year argued that between 1945 and 2010 the “disruption” of both scientific papers and patents, as measured by citation patterns, declined by more than 90% for papers and 80% for patents (see Chart 1). .

“The main thing I’d like to see is a lot more diversity in how we fund and organize research,” Dr. Nielsen said. There are plenty of ideas around. Some researchers favor awarding research grants through lotteries or expanding the system of competitive scientific or technical awards. Others prefer to found entirely new types of institutions, displacing the universities that currently dominate scientific research. And many see an opportunity to run a great scientific experiment, to advance the methods of science in how science itself can improve.

Following Benjamin Franklins

The modern system of funding science—at least in America, the world’s leading scientific power—is relatively recent. Britain’s Royal Society, the world’s oldest national scientific academy, was founded in 1660 but its funding was limited to an elite group of fellows. Before World War II, wealthy industrialists and corporate laboratories paid for a good deal of American science. America’s modern system owes much to the Rockefeller Foundation, a charity in particular. It distributed its money as grants for specific, specific projects, such as researching the cause of yellow fever. As government funding increased after World War II (see Chart 2), the American government adopted similar measures.

Photo: The Economist

Today, more than half of all funding to universities is provided by the National Institutes of Health (NIH)—which, with a budget of nearly $50bn, is the world’s largest funder of medical science—is awarded as fixed-term grants. About 70% of the $8.6 billion distributed by the National Science Foundation in 2022 (NSF) was similarly structured. A scientist applying for this funding must write a grant proposal, perhaps 15 pages long, and ideally demonstrate the merits of his project with some preliminary results. The proposal is given a score by other researchers; This, in turn, helps determine whether to fund a committee some 80% NIH fund, and 90% NSF Grants, such as go through peer review.

Silvana Konerman, a biochemist at Stanford University, notes that, with its short timeline and mix of small grants, the system leaves researchers “constantly wondering” where their next check is coming from. But increasing skills in exchange for money does not necessarily correlate with the utility of one’s research. In October, Catalin Carrico won the Nobel Prize for the discovery that MRNA Vaccination. He was resigned by the University of Pennsylvania early in his career for failing to bring in enough money.

And winning grants is becoming harder. Between 2003 and 2015 it was likely that a researcher would be funded NIH Dropped from 43% to 31% at least once in a five-year window. A study estimated that researchers applying for grants from Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council spent 614 years in 2014. Grants themselves.

A common criticism of committees deciding where money should go is that requiring consensus will stifle unconventional ideas. Sethuraman Panchanathan, Director NSF, interested in trying an offer called “Golden Ticket”. Each reviewer will be able to return a limited number of risky ideas in the face of disagreement from their peers.

A more radical solution would be to abandon committees altogether and pay by lottery. Some organizations are already experimenting along such lines. In 2013 New Zealand’s Health Research Council began awarding around 2% of its annual funding randomly—although proposals first had to clear a minimum quality bar. Germany’s Volkswagen Foundation, the British Academy and Switzerland’s National Science Foundation are all running similar experiments. The Novo Nordisk Foundation, in Denmark, is testing a hybrid system that rejects projects judged to be of poor quality, gives money to good ones, and randomly cashes out some judged mediocre.

Another idea is to build new ones instead of renovating existing institutions. In his essay, Dr. Nielsen proposed an “Institute for Traveling Scientists.” Inspired by Craig Venter, a biologist and entrepreneur who has done a lot of good science from the deck of his yacht, the institute will be based on a boat that will travel around the world, picking up and disembarking, with the aim of offering scientists a comfortable stay. An environment to master a new discipline or meet unusual associates.

A more hard-headed, if less comforting, source of inspiration is the Defense Advanced Research Agency (Darpa), an American military funding agency originally founded in 1958 that helped develop everything from the Internet to GPS and voice interfaces for computers. DarpaIts $4 billion budget sits outside the rest of America’s military-research bureaucracy. About 100 program managers — described by Adam Russell, one of their number, as “aliens” because of their often unconventional backgrounds — can fund ambitious research problems however they see fit. At its best, it acts as a “force multiplier” into entirely new areas of research, says Dr. Russell.

In America this idea gave birth to such organizations IARPAwhich applies the same model to America’s spy agencies than its military, and ARPA ewhich pays for research into innovative energy technologies. Economist Calculates that the total amount of cash transferred by such organizations will increase from about $4 billion in 2021 to about $6 billion in 2022. The most recent addition to the family was founded in 2022 ARPAH, which covers healthcare. Britain, Germany and Japan have all tried to set up the model outside America in recent years ARIA, SprintD and moonshot AndAndd, respectively

But how good ARPA The model can be clearly replicated. One former employee notes that Darpa “It no longer attracts the same talent as it used to” and says there is “little interest” in studying failure to figure out how to improve. The model may be less successful outside of military research, suggests a chapter in a book by Pierre Azoulay and Daniel Lee, a pair of economists. MITReleased in 2022. The US armed forces are the end user of the technology Darpa evolves, and has a good idea of ​​what they need. End-users in other sectors, such as energy or healthcare, are less single-minded.

The prize, which offers a jackpot to anyone who can meet a scientific or engineering goal, can also push research in new directions. The Clay Mathematics Institute’s $1 million Millennium Prize exists to focus attention on unsolved problems in mathematics. So-called Xpresses have boosted research on everything from rainforest conservation to space flight The largest, for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, has a total pot of $100 million, paid for by an entrepreneur Elon Musk. A 2021 study found that research subjects that were associated with prizes received 40% more papers and 37% more new scientists than those that were not.

Rewards also have the advantage of being tightly focused Adam Marblestone and Sam Rodricks, a physicist and a biologist respectively, are thinking along similar lines. They proposed the establishment of a series of “focused-research organizations” (F.R.Os). each F.R.O There will be specific goals and a limited lifespan, somewhat like the Human Genome Project, which began in 1990 and then shut down in 2003 after the first draft of the human genome was published. Hopefully this will prevent them from drifting into bureaucratic complacency over time. Funding may come from governments or philanthropists, for whom the prospect of bold, time-limited funding may prove attractive.

Mr. Marblestone’s company, Convergent Research, helped launch six F.R.Os trying to map neural circuits in a mammalian brain. On the 1st of November Mr. Rodricks launched a F.R.O– a non-profit called Future House that aims to create a semi-autonomous “A.I scientists” within ten years. It is backed by former Google boss Eric Schmidt. Mr. Rodrigues expects it to spend $20 million next year. In March, Britain’s prime minister, Rishi Sunak, announced his intention to set up several such organizations—though they are just It is not yet clear what to study.

And then there’s the idea of ​​funding people instead of projects. In theory, this would give researchers the freedom to follow their noses, pursue ideas that may not have an obvious payoff, and change course when something doesn’t work. The concept is not new: the most famous example is the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI, founded in 1953 in Maryland. Researchers are generously funded for seven or more years, compared to four for general NIH donation donation Between them they won more than 30 Nobel Prizes, more than Russia and the Soviet Union combined.

There is other evidence to suggest the method works well. Dr. Azoulay compared HHMI with NIHIts standard funding program. HHMI Researchers produced nearly twice as many cited works, as well as a third more flops, suggesting a willingness to take more risks. Inspired, in 2021 Dr. Konerman of Stanford (a HHMI colleague himself) started the Arc Institute, which operates on similar lines.


No one knows how successful any of these ideas will be. Dr. Russell argues that it is important to try many things, “collect data” and create “feedback loops” to improve the system. Harvard Business School economist Kyle Myers thinks funders should hire chief economists to keep track of how each approach is working.

Turning these methods of science back on itself has been called “meta-science”. This is a growing field of study, says Ilan Gurr. ARIAIts boss, Dr. Myers, calculated that since 2015, an average of about 60 randomized trials have been conducted to study scientific processes. Two decades ago this number would have been in the single digits. More coming: September 28th NSF announced a partnership with the Institute for Progress, a science-and-technology think-tank, to conduct meta-scientific experiments.

Using science to make decisions about how best to do science is a concept with a pleasing symmetry. Yet Dr. Nielsen cautions that figuring out which funding method offers the best bang for the buck can take a long time. Meanwhile, says James Wilson, who directs the Research Institute at University College London, a diverse ecosystem of funds will bring its own benefits. “If you can’t finance one way, you have another way,” he says. This can help prevent others from falling through the cracks, say Dr. Carrico.

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