Image 20150401 1263 1e1fcpf.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1

Let’s vote on it: can we use democracy to fund science?

Why not let researchers vote on who should get research funding? Flickr/Keith Ivey, CC BY-NC

Let’s vote on it: can we use democracy to fund science?

We often hear repeated complaints about research funding, and they’re not unique to the Australian funding system.

The international guru of research funding Professor John Ioannidis raised the issue back in 2011 when he wrote in Nature:

The research funding system is broken: scientists don’t have time for science any more […] It’s time to seriously consider another approach.

Why are funding systems broken? Because there are too many scientists competing for too little money and so the system has become over-competitive. This spurs scientists to spend months on ever more carefully crafted applications at the cost of their actual research.

Our survey estimated that 614 working years of scientific time went into the 2014 National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Project Grant round. That’s a massive lost opportunity cost given that success rates were just 15% and will this year fall to a soul destroying 12%.

There are many alternative funding systems and almost everybody has an idea how the limited scientific budget should be allocated. At the simplest end there’s evidence that simply giving every scientist an equal amount of money is better value for money than the costly system of lengthy applications and peer review.

At the other end of the scale we could dramatically increase the size and quality of peer review in order to create a more accurate system and so discourage those who flood the system with chancy applications.

But while this sounds ideal, it’s simply not achievable given that we would need thousands of reviewers per application to create a precise system.

What about democracy?

One alternative that could capture thousands of opinions is to use democracy.

Every year Australian scientists would vote in secret for the other Australian scientists that they think most deserve funding. The votes would be tallied and those at the top would receive a fellowship for the coming year.

This is simple, cheap and transparent, and there would be no time-consuming written applications.

It uses the principle that every scientist has an opinion on who is the best in their field. This knowledge is accumulated over time by working with other scientists, reading papers and going to conferences.

Voting would cheaply tap into this accumulated knowledge, and by using very many opinions it reduces the influence of a few strong voices (something that the current system often struggles with).

To make sure the biggest guns didn’t take all the funds, the winners could be stratified according to important criteria such as experience, gender and field of research.

People are used to voting for something, so why not vote for who gets the research funding? AAP Image/Dean Lewins

The Oscar goes to …

There’s a similar system already in place that’s been reasonably successful: the Oscars.

Here the 5,000+ members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences vote annually to reward their colleagues that (in their opinion) have created the best work.

We wouldn’t need the red carpet and gold statues when awarding research funding, but an annual announcement with a bit of fanfare might spark the public’s imagination.

No red carpet needed for research funding awards – unlike the Academy Awards, Singer Jennifer Lopez (L) and actress Demi Moore ® pose for photographers before the 2010 ceremony. EPA/Andrew Gombert

Voting is something that everyone can understand, but try explaining the current prosaic peer review system to a member of the public.

Of course there have been controversies with the Oscars, and with democracy.

Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously said:

It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.

This same line has been used to criticise peer review. The key point is that for incredibly difficult questions it’s unlikely that any system will be perfect, so we should look for the “least worst” system.

Complex problems don’t always benefit from complex solutions. Handing out billions of dollars per year in funding is an incredibly complex problem, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that we have a good system because it is a lengthy process full of checks and balances.

The worst of politics

The worst aspects of politics give clues to some potential problems with a democratic funding system.

Scientists may spend too much time lobbying for votes at the cost of their actual research. Scientists in big institutions would be at an advantage as they would have the “party machine” to help them lobby. But the most effective lobbying would be in the open, so at least everyone could see what promises were being made.

Politicians often engage in dirty tricks to scupper a rival, but given the great number of rivals for funding this tactic would likely fail or even backfire.

People might just vote for friends and colleagues, or perhaps even be bullied into doing this. But given that the system would be in secret we should trust the majority of scientists to do the right thing.

Testing the water

It really is time to test a new approach, and that’s just what we are doing by asking the Australian scientific community to vote for their most deserving colleagues here.

We want Australian scientists to vote for the ten other Australian scientists that they think most deserve funding. We will then tally the votes and see how they compare with recent NHMRC and Australian Research Council (ARC) winners.

This is just a pilot study, but if the results show promise then we hope to get support to run a larger study with real funding attached.

Found this article useful? A tax-deductible gift of $30/month helps deliver knowledge-based, ethical journalism.