By Joern Fischer
Once upon a time, whether you were a good researcher was measured by your research. Seems kind of sensible. But those times are long gone. Depending on the country you work in, being able to produce good research is no more important than being an entrepreneur. Running teams of over 10, preferably over 20 people (what, you have a lab of 30? WOW). Those will produce stuff that is, let’s say “normally distributed”, meaning every year there will also be a number of excellent papers, very likely with your name on it. To get and keep all these people, you need money. And indeed, having money has become an essential performance indicator at many institutions around the world.
Something is pretty odd about this.
What if you were the kind of researcher who produces really good work, but you choose to work in a small group? Or what if you like to work with Master’s students, and they actually publish papers in your group (but didn’t cost anything)? What if you routinely lift the quality of your colleagues’ work (e.g. because you advise them on statistics), but you end up having few big projects yourself?
In sum: what if you produce excellent stuff that doesn’t need a lot of money? — You might argue such cases are rare, but I know of several instances like that.
I assert: Raising money has become an end in its own right, when it used to be a means to the end of producing good research.
What this suggests to me is that our funding system is all upside down. I think we need more “awards” where people get money for what they have already done, and less massive funding proposals where people say what they will do.
Some really great projects have been done on a shoestring budget, and some multi-million dollar projects have produced a flood of just “average” quality science. And the treadmill of writing grant proposals is stopping people from actually producing good work.
So, suggestion to funding agencies: give out a larger part of your money as (largish) awards for what people have already done. Chances are, those who have produced great work in the past, will continue to do so. Get academics off the treadmill again, so they can do what they ought to do: produce excellent research.