Research Funding: The Pretty-Proposal Approach vs the Recent-Past-Results Approach

Say you have some money and you want to fund some research. You're an institution of some sort: NSF, Templeton, MacArthur, a university's Committee on Research. How do you decide who gets your money?

Here are two broad approaches:

The Pretty Proposal Approach. Send out a call for applications. Give the money to the researchers who make the best case that they have an awesome research plan.

The Recent-Past-Results Approach. Figure out who in the field has recently been doing the best research of the sort you want to fund. Give them money for more such research.

[ETA for clarity, 09:46] The ideal form of the Recent-Past-Results Approach is one in which the researcher does not even have to write a proposal!

Of course both models have advantages and disadvantages. But on the whole, I'd suggest, too much funding is distributed based on the pretty proposal model and insufficient money based on the recent-past-result model.


I see three main advantages to the Pretty Proposal Approach:

First, and very importantly in my mind, the PPA is egalitarian. It doesn't matter what you've done in the past. If you have a great proposal, you deserve funding!

Second, two researchers with equally good track records might have differently promising future plans, and this approach (if it goes well) will reward the researcher with the more promising plans.

Third, the institution can more precisely control exactly what research projects are funded (possibly an advantage from the perspective of the institution).


But the Pretty Proposal Approach has some big downsides compared to the Recent-Past-Results Approach:

First, in my experience, researchers spend a huge amount of time writing pretty proposals, and the amount of time has been increasing sharply. This is time they don't spend on research itself. In the aggregate, this is a huge loss to academic research productivity (e.g., see here and here). The Recent-Past-Results approach, in contrast, needn't involve any active asking by the researcher (if the granting agency does the work of finding promising recipients), or submission only of a cv and recent publications. This would allow academics to deploy more of their skills and time on the research itself, rather than on constructing beautiful requests for money.

Second, past research performance probably better predicts future research performance than do promises of future research performance. I am unaware of data specifically on this question, but in general I find it better policy to anticipate what people will do based on what they've done in the past than based on the handsome promises they make when asking for money. If this is correct, then better research is likely to be funded on a Recent-Past-Results approach. (Caveat: Most grant proposals already require some evidence of your expertise and past work, which can help mitigate this disadvantage.)

Third, the best researchers are often opportunistic and move fast. They will do better research if they can pursue emerging opportunities and inspirations than if they are tied to a proposal written a year or more before.

In my view, the downsides of the dominant Pretty Proposal Approach are sufficiently large that we should shift a substantial proportion (not all) of our research funding toward the Recent-Past-Results Approach.


What about the three advantages of the Pretty Proposal Approach?

The third advantage of the PPA -- increased institutional power -- is not clearly an all-things-considered advantage. Researchers who have recently done good work in the eyes of grant evaluators might be better at deciding the specific best uses of future research resources than are those grant evaluators themselves. Institutions understandably want some control; but they can exert this control by conditional granting: "We offer you this money to spend on research on Topic X (meeting further Criteria Y and Z), if you wish to do more such research."

The second advantage of the PPA -- more funding for similar researchers with differently promising plans -- can be partly accommodated by retaining the Pretty Proposal Approach as a substantial component of research funding. I certainly wouldn't want to see all funding to be based on Recent Past Results!

The first advantage of the PPA -- egalitarianism -- is the most concerning to me. I don't think we want to see elite professors and friends of the granting committees getting ever more of the grant money in a self-reinforcing cycle. A Recent-Past-Results Approach should implement stringent measures to reduce the risk of this outcome. Here are a few possibilities:

Prioritize researchers with less institutional support. If two researchers have similarly excellent past results but one has achieved those results with less institutional support -- a higher teaching load, less previous grant funding -- then prioritize the one with less support. Especially prioritize funding research by people with decent track records and very little institutional support, perhaps even over those with very good track records and loads of institutional support. This helps level the playing field, and it also might produce better results overall, since those with the least existing institutional support might be the ones who would most benefit from an increase in support.

Low-threshold equal funding. Create some low bar, then fund everyone at the same small level once they cross that bar. This might be good practice for universities funding small grants for faculty conference travel, for example (compared to faculty having to write detailed justifications for conference travel).

Term limits. Require a five-year hiatus, for example, after five years of funding so that other researchers have a chance at showing what they can do when they receive funding.

[ETA 10:37] In favoring more emphasis on the Recent-Past-Results Approach, I am not suggesting that everyone write Pretty Proposals with cvs attached and then the funding is decided mostly based on cv. That would combine the time disadvantage of writing Pretty Proposals with the inegalitarian disadvantage of the Recent-Past-Results Approach, and it would add misdirection since people would be invited to think that writing a good proposal is important. (Any resemblance of the real grants process to this dystopian worst-of-all-worlds approach is purely coincidental.) I am proposing either no submission at all by the grant recipient (models include MacArthur "genius" grants and automatic faculty start-up funds) or a very minimal description of topic, with no discussion of methods, impact, previous literature, etc.

[Still another ETA, 11:03] I hadn't considered random funding! See here and here (HT Daniel Brunson). An intriguing idea, perhaps in combination with a low threshold of some sort.

Related Posts:

Related Posts: How to Give $1 Million a Year to Philosophers (Mar 18, 2013).

Against Increasing the Power of Grant Agencies in Philosophy (Dec 23, 2011).

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