Bad argument against baseline funding.

Over at Sandwalk, the following comment was posted by Rosie Redfield in response to the idea of 100% baseline funding for qualified researchers.

I think that’s a terrible idea. Everyone gripes about preparing grant proposals, but that’s the one time we’re forced to think rigorously about our research BEFORE we do it. If I didn’t have to justify what I want to do in order to get the funding, I’d waste a lot of the taxpayers’ money doing what I would only later realize to be useless experiments.

I don’t know Dr. Redfield, but I have generally agreed with her comments on Larry’s posts. This is not one of those times, however. Where to start?

First, if this is true, it is an astonishing admission. Your research is still going to be evaluated during peer review before publication, your productivity will be evaluated by your institution, and, presumably, you do not want to waste your time and funds. Who doesn’t think about an experiment beforehand?

Second, most research is done by graduate students. In my department, graduate students take a mandatory course in scientific communication, a component of which is writing, presenting, and justifying their proposed research. This proposal is further edited by their advisor, and then presented to and defended in front of their advisory committee. A standard NSERC proposal must explain the work for 5 years in 5 pages. Each student’s proposal, which is evaluated by peers as well as several faculty, may be 30 pages or more of literature review, justification, study design, and research timelines. That is, the research will still be subject to considerable evaluation.

Third, money is already being wasted.

Fourth, the current system is totally focussed on small hypothesis testing. As the authors of the paper in question pointed out, a stable baseline would allow higher risk projects to get going.

Finally, the authors suggest a mixed approach, with this being only the baseline. Increases could be based on performance, and if you need more money, you have to apply and justify why.