Perceptive Article On The Sad State Of Research Funding By Toby N. Carlson

Toby N. Carlson of the Department of Meteorology at the Pennsylvania State University has shared with me two article on the sad state of research funding. This sentiment fits with my impressions of NSF funding that I have posted on in my weblog; e.g. see

Is The NSF Funding Untestable Climate Predictions – My Comments On A $6 Million Grant To Fund A Center For Robust Decision–Making On Climate And Energy Policy”

The National Science Foundation Funds Multi-Decadal Climate Predictions Without An Ability To Verify Their Skill

The two articles are

Carlson, T. N, 2010: Science by Proxy. The Chronicle for Higher Education. October 17 201o.


Carlson, T. N., 2008: Current funding practices in academic science stifle creativity. Review of Policy Research (Dupont Summit issue), 25, 631-642.

In Carlson 2010, excerpts are [highlight added]

“The agencies are also at fault. They are bureaucracies that promote top-down science to suit political and administrative ends. To begin with, there is the application process itself. Often, an agency’s request for proposal, or RFP, reads like a legal document, constricting the applicant to stay within very narrow and conventional bounds, with no profound scientific questions posed at all. Many RFP’s are so overly specific that they amount to little more than work for hire. Those who know how to play the game simply reply to RFP’s with parroted responses that echo the language in the proposal, in efforts to convince the reviewers that their programs exactly fit the conditions of the RFP. Thus many RFP’s inhibit good research rather than encourage it.

Program managers—who are even further removed from the forefront of their fields than overburdened principal investigators—also favor large, splashy research projects with plenty of crowd appeal, like fancy Web sites that look impressive but that no one actually uses. In other words, useless science.

Money is trumping creativity in academic science. This statement was previously given substance in an article I published, along with a companion paper by Mark Roulston in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (Carlson, 2006a; Roulston, 2006) and in a subsequent address I gave to the Heads and Chairs meeting in Boulder, Colorado (Carlson, 2006b). Here, I expand further on the issues treated in these papers, and make a plea for changing the way funding is administered in academic science. Using examples I show that the present worsening situation places a dead hand on the spirit and creative output of academic scientists, especially junior faculty. I suggest a possible solution, which would enable academic scientists to function in a stable environment, free from spurious financial pressures and dictates from university administration and funding agencies.”

Excerpts from the Carlson 2008 paper read

I would like to suggest an alternate approach to addressing this crisis. One approach would be to award a sum of money based on the score received from the reviewers. This would insure that all but the poorest proposals would receive some funding. Another suggestion is more radical. For this, we need not be fixated on the numbers here, as expediting the idea would entail a thorough cost analysis of funds available from institutions and the numbers of potential recipients of that funding. I believe that were funding agencies to collaborate by agreeing to award each faculty member a nominal sum of money each year (let’s say $20,000) plus one graduate student, subject to a very short proposal justifying the research and citing papers published, the total amount of money handed out would be far less than at present and the time spent in fruitless chasing after funds reduced considerably. Importantly, the productivity and creativity of the scientist would increase and the burden placed on reviewers of papers and proposals and on editors of journals would decrease.

The proposal submitted by the scientist to the funding agency would be very short (e.g., one page), and be subjected to a nominal review and a pass/fail criterion: does this proposal seem worthwhile? The level of subsistence would be set low enough to eliminate greed (or complacency on the part of the recipient), high enough to allow scientists adequate funds to carry on a viable research program free of financial stresses. The allotment would also be set sufficiently low as to insure that funding agencies have sufficient money left over for some larger programs. The latter would be funded by the submission of conventional proposals, subject to the current review process, except that the research would be initiated from the working scientist rather than the funding agency. In other words, bottom up science.

The atmosphere being created by the present system in academic science is joyless. Good scientific research requires dedication, patience, and enthusiasm and a high degree of passion for the chosen subject. Overhearing conversations in the corridors of my own institution, I am struck by the fact that the topics are almost always related to proposal writing and funding and not to scientific ideas. Where is the inspiration; where is the passion?

Toby’s recommendation is excellent, and should be encouraged. With respect to NSF funding in climate science, the current focus on funding multi-decadal climate predictions by the NSF fits with his characterization  that they “are bureaucracies that promote top-down science to suit political and administrative ends“.

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