News - March 31, 2015

New idea for allocation of research funding

Roelof Kleis

Professor Marten Scheffer is busy winning souls for a new national system for the allocation of research funding. A method in which researchers help decide who should get the most funding. That is not how it works at present.

Rather, research organizations such as the NWO and the KNAW use expert panels to allocate funding over the proposals submitted. This ‘peer review’ system is increasingly coming under fire. Not only is it expensive and time-consuming, but it also aids an inequitable distribution. Much of the funding ends up with a select group of researchers, as was recently revealed by an investigation by Dutch daily newspaper De Volkskrant. Scheffer happens to be among the select few ‘big shots’. Scheffer calls his new system SOFA: Self-Organization Fund Allocation. ‘Ask everyone who they think is doing good work and allocate funding on the basis of this “wisdom of the crowd”. On average it will work out well.’ The system was thought up by the Belgian Johan Bollen at Indiana University, a close associate of Scheffer’s. The way it works is as follows. Scheffer: ‘The first step is for each researcher to get an equal share of the money. In step two, half of that money must be given to a colleague who you think is doing particularly good work. You must then redistribute half of all the money you receive from other people. So effectively, each researcher manages a fund.’

There are rules for the donation of money. The recipient is not allowed to be a direct colleague or a relative. The percentages of the funding to be given away can be changed and the system can be expanded. Scheffer: ‘You could involve the general public and industry by letting them distribute a certain percentage of the funding.’ Scheffer has already discussed his ideas with top people at the NWO, the KNAW, the ministry of Education, Culture and Science, and Wageningen UR. ‘I am throwing lighted matches around to see if they spark off anything. We are all trapped in a system which has functioned well for a long time but which now has many disadvantages.’ According to Scheffer, the executive board is open to his suggestion to run a pilot. ‘The problem is that there is not much disposable research funding. We are going to look for a solution to that.’