Where Grants Go on the Ground

I’ve seen several recent debates about grant funding, arguments about whether this or that scientist’s work is “useless” and shouldn’t get funded. Wading into the specifics is a bit more political than I want to get on this blog right now, and if you’re looking for a general defense of basic science there are plenty to choose from. I’d like to focus on a different part, one where I think the sort of people who want to de-fund “useless” research are wildly overoptimistic.

People who call out “useless” research act as if government science funding works in a simple, straightforward way: scientists say what they want to work on, the government chooses which projects it thinks are worth funding, and the scientists the government chooses get paid.

This may be a (rough) picture of how grants are assigned. For big experiments and grants with very specific purposes, it’s reasonably accurate. But for the bulk of grants distributed among individual scientists, it ignores what happens to the money on the ground, after the scientists get it.

The simple fact of the matter is that what a grant is “for” doesn’t have all that much influence on what it gets spent on. In most cases, scientists work on what they want to, and find ways to pay for it.

Sometimes, this means getting grants for applied work, doing some of that, but also fitting in more abstract theoretical projects during downtime. Sometimes this means sharing grant money, if someone has a promising grad student they can’t fund at the moment and needs the extra help. (When I first got research funding as a grad student, I had to talk to the particle physics group’s secretary, and I’m still not 100% sure why.) Sometimes this means being funded to look into something specific and finding a promising spinoff that takes you in an entirely different direction. Sometimes you can get quite far by telling a good story, like a mathematician I know who gets defense funding to study big abstract mathematical systems because some related systems happen to have practical uses.

Is this unethical? Some of it, maybe. But from what I’ve seen of grant applications, it’s understandable.

The problem is that if scientists are too loose with what they spend grant money on, grant agency asks tend to be far too specific. I’ve heard of grants that ask you to give a timeline, over the next five years, of each discovery you’re planning to make. That sort of thing just isn’t possible in science: we can lay out a rough direction to go, but we don’t know what we’ll find.

The end result is a bit like complaints about job interviews, where everyone is expected to say they love the company even though no-one actually does. It creates an environment where everyone has to twist the truth just to keep up with everyone else.

The other thing to keep in mind is that there really isn’t any practical way to enforce any of this. Sure, you can require receipts for equipment and the like, but once you’re paying for scientists’ time you don’t have a good way to monitor how they spend it. The best you can do is have experts around to evaluate the scientists’ output…but if those experts understand enough to do that, they’re going to be part of the scientific community, like grant committees usually already are. They’ll have the same expectations as the scientists, and give similar leeway.

So if you want to kill off some “useless” area of research, you can’t do it by picking and choosing who gets grants for what. There are advocates of more drastic actions of course, trying to kill whole agencies or fields, and that’s beyond the scope of this post. But if you want science funding to keep working the way it does, and just have strong opinions about what scientists should do with it, then calling out “useless” research doesn’t do very much: if the scientists in question think it’s useful, they’ll find a way to keep working on it. You’ve slowed them down, but you’ll still end up paying for research you don’t like.

Final note: The rule against political discussion in the comments is still in effect. For this post, that means no specific accusations of one field or another as being useless, or one politician/political party/ideology or another of being the problem here. Abstract discussions and discussions of how the grant system works should be fine.

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5 thoughts on “Where Grants Go on the Ground

  1. giuliohome

    Very concrete and illuminating article! While I believe what you say about ways scientists can find to redirect grants, I still fail to see how it actually works. Let’s say I’m convinced that string theory is useless 😨 and shouldn’t be funded and on the contrary physics applied to medicine 😷 should be supported much more: confusing the two things would appear quite difficult (besides possibly quite immoral 👿), right? In order to comply with the rules and avoid😉 a political discussion, I’ll ask you a metaphorical question about philosophy: do you agree that A) the Aristotelian “substance” https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Essence as opposite to the “accidents” is an old obsolete concept – debunked by relativistic and quantum physics – or do you think that B) it is a logical universal truth and that physics and philosophy have nothing to do with each other? Based on your answer I’ll show you 🤓 that either A or B imply a quite different approach 😎 to the research funding system 😆

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    1. 4gravitonsandagradstudent Post author

      I see what you’re getting at, but I think you missed a line in the piece:

      “There are advocates of more drastic actions of course, trying to kill whole agencies or fields, and that’s beyond the scope of this post.”

      So yeah, grant funding isn’t a perfect fluid, string theorists aren’t going to get funding from the National Institute of Health. What I’m pointing out here is that the tools grant agencies have to direct this kind of thing are quite blunt: you can discourage quite broad swaths of research, but you don’t have much fine-grained control. If you fund theoretical particle physics, or theoretical gravity physics, you’ll probably end up funding some amount of string theory, whether you intend to or not.

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      1. giuliohome

        Absolutely agreed. I didn’t miss that line, it is a very smart point and again I liked the article very much. So this time I’ll say I like loop quantum gravity instead of string theory and I want to assign a grant to researching what is time, why there is a past and a future etc… I may know that string theorists are – metaphorically speaking- like the theologians of thomistic essence (sorry I have to avoid political references) while quantum

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        1. 4gravitonsandagradstudent Post author

          So, the other side to this is that there do exist very specific grants that don’t (as much) fall victim to this kind of thing, precisely because they’re targeted to a very particular sort of approach. I think people imagine that most grants are like this, but while it varies by field I think it’s fair to say most scientists are funded by grants that are a good deal more general. There’s a middle ground too, of course, where you’re specific enough to exclude some buzzwords and not others. But to go with your analogy, in physics these days even if someone loves to talk about Anaximander they may well dabble with Thomistic Essences on the same budget.

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  2. giuliohome

    … researchers love to mention Anaximander… so I mean I could easily find the key words to make the ones love and the other hate to apply for the grant!)) 😉

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