Saturday, 7 June 2014

Positive feedback loops in research funding

Funding research should mean sending money where it is most useful, considering the strength of the researchers to be funded, the interest of their projects, and how much these projects need money. However, in practice, already being well-funded or belonging to a well-funded institution is helpful, and sometimes even necessary, for a researcher to obtain funding. So there are positive feedback loops in research funding, which should be distinguished from other mechanisms that tend to concentrate research funding -- such as some people being better than others at getting money. (That these people are not necessarily the best researchers is not our subject here.)

Let's discuss some positive feedback loops:

  • Funding decisions take into account numbers of publications and the prestige of journals where publications appeared. But in the authors-pay publication model, you need money to publish, and prestigious journals are more expensive. There are even researchers who buy authorships, although such cases are considered fraudulent, and are presumably still rare. 
  • Increasingly, conference organizers fund neither participants, nor even invited speakers, so the possibility for them to accept the invitation depends on already having money. For example, this is the case at the most prestigious mathematical conference -- the International Congress of Mathematicians. But attending conferences is helpful for obtaining funding: conferences allow to meet colleagues who may contribute to funding decisions, and invited talks at prestigious conferences appear on CVs and therefore funding applications.
  • Grant applications can be so complicated that professional help is required. So research institutions are hiring consulting firms and/or dedicated staff for helping their researchers apply to grants from the European Research Council.
In this third example, we see not only that research funding gets concentrated by money attracting money, but also that some gets diverted to non-research expenses. Of course the money which pays the administrators and consultants might not technically be research funding.  And from the point of view of individual actors (researchers or research institutions), these non-research expenses surely help to maximize the amount of money ultimately available for research. System-wide, the net outcome is however to waste money in administrative costs. This actually holds not only for money, but also for the time and energy of researchers.

The existence of positive feedback loops is only one indication that the existing research funding system is wasteful and inefficient. There is a recent fashion for laureates of the Nobel prize to explain that their prize-winning research could not have happened in this system.