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Perfectly formed for funding

December 10, 2011

The US National Science Foundation is proposing a $24m initiative to fund high-risk, high-reward science projects up to $1m each.

The plan aims to cut through the problem of research teams having an almost guaranteed chance of “success” or being run by a science celebrity who attracts cash like a supermagnet. “Funding of very large groups for very successful stars is a mistake because nobody can predict who the big stars will be,” said pharmacologist David Colquhoun at a debate in London earlier this week. He recommended a system in which research teams were limited to two or three people who were permitted to publish only two or three papers per year.

And he criticised the Wellcome Trust for funding only large teams. But Mark Wolpert, the trust’s director, retorted: “We don’t fund major groups, we fund perfectly formed groups.”

Will the US model prove successful at supporting free innovation that could result in the next breakthrough? Philip Ball outlines his concerns in his new Guardian column thus:

“Because the funding will be allocated by individual project managers rather than risking the conservatism of review panels, it could fall prey to cronyism. And who is to say that those project managers will be any more broadminded or perceptive? In the end, it is a Gordian knot: only experts can properly assess proposals, but by definition their vision tends to be narrow.”

What do you think?

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