Posted in Ethics, politics, Web 2.0
Much more has been said about the failure of current grant system than that has actually changed. My favorite opinion piece is this one by Peter A. Lawrence. The single-sentence abstract says it all: “The granting system turns young scientists into bureaucrats and then betrays them.” There are a couple of suggestions for improving the funding distribution in that article but the title of a comment by Markus Noll says enough about why nothing is changing: “Scientists in power will never change their system unless forced.”
Beside the unbalanced budget for research which is outside scientists’ control, part of the current deficiency is due to the slow and in-transparent peer review system for both grants and publications. I should emphasize that in my own opinion, scientific peer review is still a much better evaluation for merit than any quantitative measure advocated by publishers and some politicians. The main problem is what physicists know well about: the shot noise. A grant proposal or an article is still reviewed by a handful of peers which surely have conflicting interests with the author, the minimum being the limited budget itself. The unavoidable confidentiality does not help to increase the morality of the review process. It may make it more streamlined or decisive, but for sure more vulnerable to abuse both in favor or against the authors or applicants. One can only hope that these “unfortunate cases” average out when consulting a larger community of peers. This will also result in much lower work load on every reviewer, and also the authors. The problem is that with the old-fashioned bureaucracy of funding agencies and publishers, that would take forever.
With advances in communication tools and online social interaction, it is nowadays much easier and cheaper to perform numerous large scale polls with various degrees of control. Even for those who complain about the ineffectiveness of massive equal-vote polls, the web has developed several means of controlling and enhancing the mechanism. One example is the progress of massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) which is nowadays a tool for sociology and psychology research. These technologies can easily increase the efficiency of peer-review, speed it up and greatly enhance the signal-to-noise ratio of the whole process (some people even say that a random selection will do just as good as the current peer-review system!).
It is surprising to me that the scientific community, being at the forefront of advances in technology is still lacking in using these tools. Or maybe it is just politically discouraged, or restricted to insensitive processes like the election of representatives for scientific societies.