Funding People Instead of Projects Allows Researchers to Nimbly Pivot in the Light of Unexpected Discoveries

(p. A2) Patrick Collison, the Irish-born co-founder of payments technology company Stripe Inc., has spent a lot of the past five years pondering the problem of declining scientific productivity.

. . .

Clearly, scientific productivity has something to do with how research is done, not how much. One culprit, in the view of Mr. Collison and many others, is that the institutions that fund science have become process-oriented, narrow-minded and risk-averse. Wary of failure, they favor established researchers pursuing narrowly focused, incremental ideas over younger scientists with more heterodox agendas.

. . .

Yet Mr. Collison criticizes the federal government for failing to bring a much deeper and eager pool of talent to bear on a multitude of pandemic challenges. Top virologists “were stuck on hold, waiting for decisions about whether they could repurpose their existing funding for this exponentially growing catastrophe,” he wrote in an essay last year with George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen, and University of California, Berkeley bioengineering professor Patrick Hsu.

Sensing a need, the three in April, 2020 launched Fast Grants, $10,000 to $500,000 awards funded primarily by private donors and approved in 14 days or less.

. . .

When Messrs. Collison, Cowen and Tsu surveyed their recipients about their experiences with traditional funding, 57% told them they spent more than a quarter of their time on grant applications and 78% said they would change their research program a lot if they weren’t constrained in how they spent their current funding.

This reinforces a key insight from metascience, also known as the science of science, namely the value of curiosity-driven research. Heidi Williams, an economist at Stanford University and director of science policy at the Institute for Progress, said grants typically commit a scholar to complete a specific project, even if during the research the project proves less promising than expected.

. . .

In a 2009 paper, Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Pierre Azoulay and his co-authors demonstrated the benefits of funding people over projects. Researchers backed by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which takes such an approach, produce far more widely cited papers—a metric of significance—than similar researchers funded by the National Institutes of Health. Drawing on those lessons, last year, Mr. Collison co-founded the Arc Institute to pre-fund scientists studying complex human diseases for renewable eight-year terms.

For the full commentary, see:

Greg Ip. “CAPITAL ACCOUNT; To Boost Growth, Rethink Science Funding.” The Wall Street Journal (Friday, Nov. 18, 2022): A2.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date November 17, 2022, and has the title “CAPITAL ACCOUNT; Stagnant Scientific Productivity Holding Back Growth.”)

The published version of Azoulay’s co-authored 2009 NBER working paper, mentioned above, is:

Azoulay, Pierre, Joshua S. Graff Zivin, and Gustavo Manso. “Incentives and Creativity: Evidence from the Academic Life Sciences.” RAND Journal of Economics 42, no. 3 (Fall 2011): 527-54.

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