In certain cases, they might as well just give money to all qualified comers. As crazy as that sounds, the screening process does not always justify its cost. In 2009 two Canadian academics calculated that the country’s Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council spent more than C$40 million administering its basic “discovery” grants. It would have been cheaper simply to award each applicant the average grant of C$30,000. Yet another idea is a lottery system, as the Foundational Questions Institute uses for its smaller grants. Many grants are so competitive that the choice is largely a lottery anyway.
Funders and universities also need to confront tough questions such as whether graduate programs are issuing too many Ph.D.s. If a professor has more than a few doctoral students over the course of his or her career, the number of researchers competing for grants will increase exponentially.
One thing is clear: the status quo is unsustainable. Budgets are tight, and the scientific questions the world faces are pressing. We cannot afford to be squandering money and minds.
This article was originally published with the title Dr. No Money.