In a previous post in the Fund People, not Projects series I talked about a potential new structure for a hypothetical funding agency. That was just one proposal among many one could make. This post has a set of other such proposals, along with a brief justification for why it might be a good idea. The proposals are not fully fleshed out but they are meant to be inspirational, and intended to be more broadly in the right direction than precisely ready for implementation.
The Young Researchers Research Institute
Current science funding institutions typically recognize a need to incentivize younger scientists to contribute and stay in the system. NIH for example has various Early Stage/New Investigator policies. While the case for gerontocratic pessimism is not fully warranted (Older scientists are not generally at a disadvantage relative to younger ones), it is unarguably true that younger scientists have it harder than ever in steering their own investigations: They must do so under the "adult supervision" of an established PI and only in their early forties do they get to apply for grants themselves.
But what if we radically empower the young?
The Young Researchers Research Institute (YRRI) would take in students that have just finished their PhDs and would put them in an environment with other younger scientists to pursue any kind of research they want. Given that it would be a weird career move, it might dissuade some researchers, but if you truly believe in your idea, and your PI doesn't want you to do that, then the will to try might be stronger than the uncertainties involved in joining the YRRI.
NFTs PhDs, it could be objected, are not yet ready to lead research of their own. This is nonsense. Sure, maybe some of them are, but there are many historical figures that achieved professorships or published groundbreaking results very early in life (e.g. Pasteur becoming professor for the first time at the age of 26, or Einstein publishing his Annus Mirabilis papers at the same age). We don't need everyone to be ready for independent research by that age for YRRI to work, we just need some scientists that are, and would like to embark on a project of their own design.
This wouldn't mean that they would be on their own: There would be an advisory board of established scientists to offer coaching and scientific advice to YRRI members; and YRRI wouldn't be focused on one particular topic, you could have under the same roof someone researching doubly-special relativity, RNA computation, gene circuits or new simulation algorithms for mechanical systems
(Shameless plug for my own paper).
The "Yes, and" Funding Mechanism
You find a paper you love, but the author is not working on that anymore because the grant ran out or some other reason. A team of "Yes, and" officers would scour the reams of old interesting papers that came out years ago and find if their authors are interested in revisiting their own work. A "Yes, and" paper might involve revisiting an old paper with more statistical power, or with more precise, modern techniques, measuring different endpoints, or trying an altogether different approach that perhaps was even planned back then but that there was no time to actually take to its conclusion.
The Adversarial Research Institute
We need more of these people. Maybe they could get a more family-friendly name like science janitors, but the idea is the same:
Instead of adding one more brick to the decaying edifice of science, research funding should be spent on hiring thousands of science janitors to clear up the mess. It is important to uncover new truths, but it is also important—perhaps more so—to make sure that we can effectively fight data fabrication, and other questionable research practices, while at the same time funding replications to ensure the robustness of a given literature.
Adversarial research is not well recognized in academia. On paper, there is nothing preventing scientists from attacking and outright tanking the careers of their peers into oblivion, but in practice that is a bad career move. Scientists are all playing the same game, and you want to make friends, not enemies. Finding something new is what gets you tenure. Rarely it has been the case that anyone that has brought order to the house of science has ended up sitting with the grownups at the dinner table. The Adversarial Research Institute (ARI) would change that by directly hiring researchers that just want to police the rest of science. Unbridled from the need to curry the favor of peers of any sort, and able to hang out with fellow epistemic nihilists, they would be able to work full time on adding more Refutations to a landscape full of Conjectures.
ARI members wouldn't necessarily just antagonize the rest of the scientific world. They could also work on publishing rolling literature reviews, candidly pointing out the state of a given literature, calling out shoddy work and pointing to open questions or facts taken as given but that are actually built on shaky grounds.
The Institute for Scientific Roadmapping
What does the field of longevity research look like? Well, you can look at my longevity FAQ for that, but there is more to a field than an introductory FAQ. What are the fine-grained research questions that are roadblocks for the field? What progress has been made in recent decades? What are promising avenues forward? What high-level problem is even the field trying to solve, if any?
The Institute for Scientific Roadmapping would produce roadmaps for various fields; a roadmap might include
- A map of the field (subareas, state of progress, history, key names)
- Key questions the field is working on
- Key questions that the field is not working on but should, and why
- Key constraints the field faces
These roadmaps would make legible to scientists, policymakers, or philanthropists a lot of the implicit knowledge that exists within a field, with the idea of using that roadmap to then channel resources to the appropriate questions or bottlenecks. These could be addressed with policy, research projects, or more general grant funding.
McKinsey, but for science
Management consulting is either the greatest grift on Earth, or a tremendously valuable activity (Either via the socially useful function of scapegoating, by offloading onto them blame that would otherwise fall onto the CEO, which in turn may enable to change course more often; or ideally by transferring better business practices).
This may work for science as well. Some labs may work better than others not just because they have better equipment or smarter people, but because they have better frameworks for posing interesting and answering research questions, or in general running the lab. This runs along the lines of my Systematizing breakthroughs article or Marblestone & Boyden's Architecting Discovery
Science Funding Tokens
Science Funding Tokens (SFTs) would be issued to all participating scientists. Each year you can allocate tokens to other scientists you think are going to produce "good work". You can't allocate them to yourself. Funding is allocated then based on the distribution of tokens (e.g. perhaps according to quadratic funding). Every 5 years, papers funded by this mechanism are assessed and scientists earn cash prizes if they voted for the work later judged as impactful.
"One small step for the fund, but a big step for Science" Fund
Sometimes an existing or proposed grant has part of it that gets cut due to funding constraints. It would be very useful to have just that one little thing but unfortunately it can't be. Here's usually when as a researcher you ask the local mailing list for some spare mCherry. The "One small step for the fund, but a big step for Science" funding mechanism would take proposals for cheap but potentially very relevant upgrades to an existing proposal, and fund them quickly.
Additionally, the fund could proactively reach out to researchers in a field and tell them that if they want to add something to their proposals, their fund will cover it. Tired of seeing fellow researchers not completing the Battery Checklist alleging that it costs money to do so (?) ? Worry not, the OSSFTFBABSFS Fund (name pending) has you covered.