Forget peer review. Give everyone a grant.

ResearchBlogging.orgA paper in Accountability in Research last week has stirred up significant controversy among researchers, science journalists and bloggers this week.  Directly from the abstract:

“Using Natural Science and Engineering Research Council Canada (NSERC) statistics, we show that the $40,000 (Canadian) cost of preparation for a grant application and rejection by peer review in 2007 exceeded that of giving every qualified investigator a direct baseline discovery grant of $30,000 (average grant).”

Richard Gordon, a radiologist, and Bryan Poulin, a business researcher, say in their paper that the current system is wasteful of taxpayers’ money.  They also suggest (in animated language) that if the peer-review process were abolished for baseline research, then innovative ideas would be encouraged.  For scientists requiring large amounts of money to conduct highly technical research, a separate peer-review system like the one we have today would suffice.

The paper lists more than 20 reasons why our current granting system is flawed. One criticism stood out. When universities hire faculty, isn’t that already a peer-review process? Shouldn’t we trust the scientists who have put years of hard toil into earning a PhD and landing an academic job? Besides, there’s enough peer-review at later stages in the process: journal articles and conference proceedings are held up to rigorous scrutiny. Worse, perhaps the competition among scientists to “get a leg up” in the early stages of their careers dissuades students from entering the field.

What would happen to the field of ecology if every qualified ecologist received $25,000 U.S. dollars to explore a new research idea? If it worked, then you’d have some data to put into that $500,000 grant application. If not, then you’d probably bark up another tree without wasting years trying to get money to test it out.

What do you think? Does the current system encourage a “good old boys” club? Or would opening the floodgates for funding of a lot of misguided research?

Read an extensive blog discussion of this article on A Blog Around the Clock. You can also request a copy of the paper from the very generous author, Richard Gordon, at gordonr at cc.umanitoba.ca

Gordon, R., & Poulin, B. (2009). Cost of the NSERC Science Grant Peer Review System Exceeds the Cost of Giving Every Qualified Researcher a Baseline Grant Accountability in Research, 16 (1), 13-40 DOI: 10.1080/08989620802689821

Author: Christine Buckley

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2 Comments

  1. It seems like this assumes static numbers of grant seekers. Wouldn’t free money draw in more people and thus up the cost of the free money?

  2. In the authors’ scenario, money would be given to all 9,000 faculty members of science and engineering with appointments at eligible Canadian universities. Although only about a third of eligible faculty applied for money in 2006, if all 9,000 were given $30,000 each, it would still cost less than the current NSERC budget for Discovery grants.

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