I recently participated in a small research conference that focused on fundamental research in battery materials. The talks were great, the locale was blissful and I left with much to chew on in a scientific sense. Surprising to me though, weeks after the conference, I kept coming back to a particular conversation between a tableful of scientists and engineers who were drinking tongue-relaxing amounts of tasty local beer. We were discussing models of science funding in the US and peoples opinions on what works and what doesn’t. Below is a summary of some thoughts that were batted around.
Hub-based funding. To simplify, a hub-type model is on the large-scale side of science funding. It typically involves a multi-university/national lab/industry partner effort. The idea is to think big and tackle a huge problem all the way from fundamental to pilot-scale research development (or even as far as technology-scale). A few snippets my table full of scientists and engineers:
- The logistics and organization of that many scientists and engineers working together can often bog down and defocus efforts.
- The larger the pot of money, the more grandiose the claims and promises, for better and worse.
- Large hubs are politically appealing as they typically tackle huge problems that are tractable to the average person. Tell a politician that you work on understanding surface electrolyte interface formation kinetics and they’ll blink twice for “does not compute.” Tell them that you’re going to build the next generation battery for electric cars that will cost less money and they’ll smile because, well, that’s something tangible that tax payer dollars should fund.
Center-based funding. A slightly scaled down version of a hub. Typically involves 2-3 institutions working on a more specific problem (and perhaps less grand than a hub). Potential conflict of interest notice: I and many of the people involved with this conference have been or are currently involved with center-based funding, some part of hub-based funding, too.
- There was general agreement that this was at least a decent model as the smaller scale takes care of some of the logistics problems.
- Furthermore, the amount of money is typically less which, in theory, makes a bad bet easier to stomach.
- I’m not sure if there is research to back this but there IS something useful about having your collaborators close at hand. We can talk about how technology has essentially rid us of communication barriers through file sharing, email, video conferencing, etc but I personally still believe that the barrier toward useful collaboration is lowered as the proximity of your collaborator gets closer. There are plenty of examples of long distance collaboration working beautifully but what you don’t hear about are all the times it falls flat after six months.
Single Investigator-based funding. A model where a single principle investigator (PI) is funded for a focused project.
- One participant at the conference went so far as to say that hub- and center-based funding is a waste of time and money. We should put all of the grant resources into more numerous and higher dollar value single investigator awards. His hypothesis is that people who are highly motivated to do the best science are going to be collaborating with other highly motivated scientists around the world regardless of hubs or no hubs. Why spend energy and money forcing something that would occur naturally?
- This last point spurred another touchy subject: funding ideas versus funding people. With limited grant money available for single investigator awards, those who review and award grants are faced with the tough decision of choosing between a lot of stellar research proposals. What to do? A calloused viewpoint is that those awards will typically go to people who have a proven track record of research. It’s a safer bet than giving the money to someone who is unproven but might have an intriguing idea for research. This problem is somewhat alleviated by things like early-career awards from NSF and NIH but with a combination of a shift in focus towards hub- and center-based funding along with flatline or decreasing funding opportunities overall, there are a lot of individual researchers left in the lurch. This is particularly problematic for early tenure professors at smaller universities who have less of an opportunity to contribute to hub- or center-based efforts.
Which model produces the highest quality science per taxpayer dollar? There is no easy way to answer that question. Sure, we could look at a list of publications versus grant dollar amount and assign a value of $/publication. That wouldn’t be useful seeing as the sheer numbers game doesn’t necessarily track with quality, i.e., quantity does not always equate to quality. In fact, some would go as far to argue that there might be an inverse correlation to those two things. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here in saying that all three models, when done right, are good things for science.