The Conversation, posted 14 January 2014
A recent paper by five mathematical computer scientists at Indiana University (published in EMBO Reports, a forum for short papers in molecular biology) proposes a clever new model for science funding that makes use of collective allocation (peer-funding) rather than expert-panel-and-peer-review funding mechanisms. I want to consider whether this might also work for arts and cultural funding.
Public science and research funding in Australia, as in most of the world, is based on a process that has remained largely unchanged for 60 years. This begins with calls for submissions of reasonably detailed project proposals. These then pass through expert panels (e.g. the Australian Research Council) and then on to the peer review process in which carefully selected “peers” evaluate the proposals and write detailed reports, before passing these back to the panels for final judgement. The high-level of process and accountability makes this the gold standard for taxpayer-sourced public funding of research (philanthropic trust funding often mirrors this architecture).
But it is expensive to run, and onerous to all involved. Perhaps one in ten projects proposed will be funded. The amounts of time and effort invested by all those seeking funding will tend toward the expected value of the grants, meaning that once overhead costs to panels and reviewers are added in, these function to a considerable degree as a redistribution mechanism. Rob Brooks wrote about this on The Conversation last year.
The new model the computer scientists propose bypasses this expert-panel-and-peer-review system altogether by simply taking the whole public lump of funding, and allocating it unconditionally (yes, unconditionally) to all “eligible” scientific researchers. It would thus function like a kind of “basic income”.
They calculate that if the National Science Foundation budget in the US were divided among all who applied for funding, it would deliver about US$100,000 per scientist. The problem with this, apart from an expected blowout in the number of people who claim to be scientists, is that we’ve just lost oversight, accountability and peer review.
So here’s what the computer scientists propose: everyone who receives funding gives some fraction (say 50% of their previous year’s funding) to other scientists whose work they like or think particularly interesting and valuable. That fraction can be distributed among one or many. The idea is that this works as a collective-allocation mechanism that basically crowd-sources peer review, and with the added advantage that it funds people, not projects. It also gets the incentives right for scientists to concentrate on clear communication of their findings and the value of research.
Jason Potts, Professor of Economics at RMIT University
Canopy Arts Desk
Tammy Hampel (Isaacson)
News and information about Arts and Culture, Arts Administration, Communications, Development and Non-profit Management