We have criticized the current science funding and approach many times and in many ways here on MT. Essentially, there is waste, relentless pressure to churn out safe incremental results, and pressure to rely on Big Science for a variety of reasons, some of which have as much to do with careerism as the science itself. The science establishment has been overpopulated in a Malthusian way, even knowingly, and we have noted how and why this understandably leads to various forms of shading of the evidence, including outright fraud.
These are facts that only the most Pollyannish people in science, or perhaps Francis Collins politicking in defense of NIH's budget, would deny.
We have said to the contrary, that grant budgets should be cut substantially. The objective would be to force investigators to work on more cogent problems, more likely to return useful practical or theoretical results to the society that funds the work, and do that at more reasonable cost. But we would encourage longer-term funding, and caps on how much any one investigator can have, to spread the wealth. We know that this, like any such distribution policy, would generate some waste and inefficiency, but it could hardly be more than it is currently, and might increase the chance of real innovative discovery. Faculty for whom research is part of their job, should be given modest research budgets without having to pass 'peer' review, but accountable instead by periodic demonstration of capable thoughtful work. Projects, especially big ones, ought to have clear and definitive time limits. Universities should be weaned off their addiction to grant overhead, and career-building needs to be returned to evaluations based more on originality, depth, and impact than on lobbied, gamed production mills.
But how can it be good to cut funding when it's already so tight?
It has been objected that the probability of funding is already very low--some institutes at the National Institutes of Health are said to be funding only 8% of grant applications--so that cutting could hardly have salubrious effects! How can we rectify a belief that the system of science is too bloated with the fact that reduced budgets would make it even harder to be funded?
This is a fair question, and the answer isn't simple, but let's try to explain our view, at least. First, funding is tight perhaps, but the 8% figure doesn't represent the whole story.
A large amount of research support by NIH at least, and probably NSF as well, goes to internally driven programs or projects, perhaps like funding DNA sequencing centers, or to semi-competitive contract bids, or to RFP's. RFPs are NIH's requests for proposals to address some particular area that they have been convinced need attention; RFP's are drafted with external consultants and in our experience the funding mainly goes more or less predictably to insiders, already established in the field, partly because they're in effect designed or aimed that way, which leaves most proposals coming opportunistically out of the blue and truly far off the fundability mark.
In addition, the low per-proposal rate, whether it's 8% or in fact higher, just leads investigators to submit reams of proposals every year, so that while most proposals may not be funded, most investigators do get some funding. And if you look at what's funded, you wonder how that could happen if funds were really so tight that only really good science would make the mark.
This same overheated system means less time investigators spend doing any actual work because they're writing so many grant applications, and that leads investigators to routinely overstate what they have done, and to be very safe in proposing what they want to do in the future. It generates large sets of administrators to handle the processing, etc. And, of course, to the shading of truth in various ways. You can't expect otherwise.
Further, there is a very conscious and intentional drive to propose bigger and longer studies on various grounds, some legitimate but many trumped up as rationales, so investigators can manage big groups for long time periods. Bigger means safer and more status and influence on campus. You can't fault people for thinking grandly, or seeking more security. A concentration of funds in Big Science is not good for science overall if it leads to quickly diminishing returns but too-big-to-terminate projects, and this we think is quite common, indeed almost the rule. The move to 'omics' scale work is very deliberately done and in part for these fiscal and careerist rather than scientific reasons.
Of course, the same, predictably, also drives universities to want more overhead income--universities get a hefty percentage of the budget of just about every grant their faculty members receive, money over and above the grant budget, that goes straight from the funding agency to the university--so there are all sorts of pressures on the system itself to go Big. There is no reason universities shouldn't keep wanting to expand: in the way we view the world in the business-modeled US and EU, size, growth, and competition are everything. Investigators who aren't funded can, well, survive however they can survive. Or not. Pressures are naturally for 'faculty' to teach less if at all, and do less actual work so they can spend their time and effort on grant-writing. So naturally we tend to hype every little factoid to the media and publish a relentless stream of (usually never-cited) papers. Anyone who denies the pervasiveness of this is being disingenuous.
Considering all these factors, however tight funding is it's in part because the system is still bloated without constraints to make people do more focused, accountable, work. Or to become more efficient. Or more honest, if it comes to that.
If budgets were cut to the point that NIH and perhaps also NSF and others, had really to evaluate what is most necessary, focused, and likely to yield returns, and to stop things that aren't, and to curb university overhead-greed and administrative overload, and to restrain NIH's and NSF"s own big publicity hype machines, and so on, we could perhaps--perhaps--make things more scientifically efficient.
If we slowed down and scaled back, and made funding more predictable and longer-term, but per capita smaller, and changed to a way of thinking that led to fewer but better-trained graduate students, fewer post-docs, smaller faculty and research staff, smaller and less bloated operations overall, then science might be advanced and perhaps even at a lower cost. And funding, though more modest perhaps, would be easier to get.
But without real tightening, it is in nobody's interests--certainly not those who accept the Darwinian worldview that life is all about relentless competition and winner-take-all rewards--to change the way they do business. As it is now, competing more frenetically is the strategy that is perceived to have the best chances of success.
But what about the jobs at stake?
Any cuts will involve threats to jobs and hence draw resistance of whatever sort universities and investigators and other lobbyists can muster. But there are honorable ways to cut. Phased budgetary cut-backs could give universities time to adjust. They could downsize by not replacing personnel who leave or retire, for example. Phased change that is clearly signaled with enough time to adapt is a proper and feasible way to do things.
A return to more measured expectations and modest but focused work, done in a humanely phased way, could rectify some of the issues and improve the yield of knowledge and 'translatable' results to the public.