Posted by: Jeremy Fox | June 28, 2011

Evidence that granting agencies should fund people, not projects

At least, they should if they want to maximize their chances of funding truly groundbreaking research, and are willing to accept an increased risk of failure. That’s the conclusion of what seems to be a quite rigorous and detailed study of the work of HHMI investigators (HHMI funds people) vs. otherwise-similar NIH investigators (NIH funds projects).

I’d be very interested in a similar study of NSERC, which like HHMI funds people rather than projects, but unlike HHMI funds a relatively large number of people with relatively modest grants. In a sense, NSERC is ‘hedging its bets’ by funding so many people; HHMI takes the riskier approach of putting its eggs in fewer baskets. (NIH also puts its eggs in relatively few baskets, but because those baskets are individual projects that are selected for their high likelihood of success, NIH’s approach is ultimately quite risk-averse) In funding people rather than projects, but funding many people rather than few, is NSERC thereby gaining the ‘best of both worlds’? Or the worst? Or somewhere in between?


  1. An addendum to this post I think is that grad students should be funded, instead of their advisors (which is basically the case, e.g., grad students can’t be PI’s on DDIG NSF proposals). This would give grad students more power, and get away from the very asymmetric power structure that exists today.

    • Grad student funding varies a lot from country to country. In the UK, PIs apply for funding for a student project, then advertise for a student to do it; at least with a DDIG the student often had a larger voice in developing the project. But in Canada, major federal scholarships and fellowships go to the student, not the supervisor. And of course, in all these places there are various sources of (typically smaller) scholarships, which mostly go directly to the student.

      Do you think that changing to something like the Canadian system would, on its own, greatly improve the lot of the bulk of graduate students? (I mean that as an honest question, not a rhetorical one) After all, most students don’t get a DDIG, or (in Canada) a major NSERC award. Instead, they’re mostly funded as teaching assistants, and/or as graduate assistants on a PIs research grant. Both of those funding sources create significant potential for students to be overworked and exploited, don’t they? Probably even to a greater extent than DDIGs?

      Looming in the background here is the whole issue of why we fund graduate students, what kind of training we provide them, and whether we fund too many of them. Something I may talk about in a future post, when I need a really controversial topic to bump up our traffic… 😉

      • Hmm, this is complicated indeed. As I near the end of grad school, my feeling at the moment is that of moving towards less, but better paid grad students. I wasn’t a stellar undergrad, so that would mean I wouldn’t have a chance probably, but so be it I suppose.

        In addition, there is the issue of incentives. Maybe this is just because I have been listening to a lot of Planet Money, but it may make sense to structure grad school with incentives just as businesses are. That is, e.g., a publication gets you a bonus of X dollars, and grant a bonus of X dollars. It sounds great in theory that all grad students get paid the same, but it practice I just don’t see this system getting the payoffs in research advances that we would get in a more incentivized system. Am I totally off my rocker here?

  2. Alas, all the trends in the US seem to be going to funding huge collaborative projects, losing sight of the individual scientist. If you want an example of how millions of dollars are being spent on a kind of ‘prairie farming’ approach to science, look here:

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