Expanding how we fund science could radically improve the range and variety of research that scientists can pursue. We are interested in developing new funding models and implementing them in the UK – where few alternative models currently exist.
Why science funding matters
The allocation of research funding profoundly shapes the direction of scientific research. Under current funding models, researchers are often unable to pursue the questions that they deem the most interesting or important. Indeed, 78% of researchers said they would significantly change their research program if existing funding could be spent on the projects they find most interesting. A particular concern is that the current model does not effectively support high-risk, high-reward research, despite the fact that such research may result in outsized conceptual returns. Expanding how we fund science could radically improve the range of research that is pursued.
The administrative demands of grant funding also cost researchers significant time and effort. Academics have been reported to spend over 40 percent of their time managing administrative tasks related to grant funding. The success rate for grants awarded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health has dropped from 30% in 2003 to 19.1% in 2016 – meaning that the proportion of this time spent on unsuccessful applications is continuing to increase. As most researchers are reliant on obtaining grants to secure their jobs, this process is associated with significant anxiety and disincentivises highly original but risky lines of research. Furthermore, the effects of this allocation process mainly serve to reinforce the existing hierarchy: funding further accretes to previous winners, and researchers younger than 35 receive less than 5 percent of federal funding. The barriers faced by young researchers are likely to prevent new ideas entering a field and deter many from a career in science.
78% of researchers would significantly change their research program if existing funding could be spent without constraints.
Several ideas have been recently developed to try to fund science in new, diverse ways. These include: Fast Grants, Focused Research Organisations, early-career fellowships, unconstrained long-term funding, and self-organised fund allocation, among others. There is plenty of room for experimentation in this space, and we believe that the more we try and test new funding models, the better. The Better Science Project is interested in developing new funding models and implementing them in the UK – where few alternative models currently exist.