People or projects?

The big news in scientific philanthropy right now is the Wellcome Trust announcement that it is shifting some of its funding from projects to people.

In this way, they are following in the footsteps of HHMI and in the older traditions of the Rockefeller Foundation (“make the peaks higher”) and Carnegie (” find the exceptional man”).   The reaction is predictable.    Some scientists are enthusiastically supportive of awarding funding to a person while others argue that the typical 3 year investigator-initiated project grant is the right and proper way to fund science.   underlying both views is the certainty of each camp that there is a best way to fund scientific research.

In reality – the “people” people have always reviewed proposals valueing the person over the project.    We have all sat on review panels where the first thing said about a proposal is that Dr. X is a great guy (and in such discussions Dr. X is typically a guy).   We then hear about how well the person knows Dr. X, the wonderful person Dr. X trained with, and how if given the money Dr. X will do great things.   ‘Nuff said.    My own advisor (a great guy) often said grants were about “the man, the plan, the fan.”

But what if you are Dr. Y?   When your proposal is introduced with “I don’t know Dr. Y…”, you can almost feel the oxygen being sucked out of the room.   Dr. Y may or may not get funded when all is said and done, but the chances are slimmer than Dr. X’s.   And in today’s tight funding climate slim may actually be closer to slim to none.

And so the rich – right schools, right pedigree, right pals, right meetings, and the right way of thinking about a question – get richer.     And for foundations – who should be taking chances, supporting alternative models, and questioning the status quo, especially when it turns out the status quo might be teetering on a less secure foundation than common wisdom suggests – making the rich richer may be a less than ideal strategy.

There is another way to think about the people vs. project funding dilemma.

Think about programs.   Not the aim 1, aim 2, aim 3 projects and not just the reputation of the proposer.   Rather, focus on what it is that this line of research will tell us?   What will we know if it is pursued?   Will we care?    Besides personal knowledge of the PI, what is it in his or her record that supports the belief that this person is likely to do something interesting?  Make the proposal focus on the program — because sometimes it becomes obvious that while someone (even a great guy) might have a lot of good projects it is not quite clear that it adds up to a serious  program.  

Will supporting her or his program take us someplace?

The “person”-centered review always makes me a little nervous.   There are lots of bright, creative researchers who didn’t go to the right lab for training, don’t look just like the review panel, don’t mingle effectively at meetings, and don’t ever question authority.

I do think that long term, flexible funding is one of the best ways to support science.   And focusing on programs rather than people or projects tends to help spread the wealth.   Most likely Dr. X will still get funded.   But maybe so will Dr. Y.