Letting scientists off the leash

From Olivia Judson‘s NYT blog: Stanford’s Steve Quake proposes a new type of funding model that lets scientists focus on science.

The problem:

Such a system does not come without its own perils. It is not so easy to ask our young scientists to think out of the box when a significant portion of their salary (and mortgage payments) depends on guaranteeing a steady source of funding. Consequently, professors become highly attuned to the institutional priorities of various funding agencies — often at a cost to their own creativity and desired research directions.

Science at its most interesting is provocative, surprising, counter-intuitive and difficult to plan — and those are very difficult values to institutionalize in an organization or bureaucracy of any size. I have seen my own grant proposals get chewed up and rejected with comments like “typically bold, but wildly ambitious,” and wondered why it is wrong to be ambitious in one’s research — but perhaps that is a conclusion fully consistent with science by committee.

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