As I understand the funding model, it's generally the funder solicits research proposals, then choose those they find the most interesting/promising. The researcher who wrote the funding application then goes and does the research with the money. In other words, the funder mostly assesses the research idea, not so much the researcher.

Can the funder use a different model where they assess the researcher (not the researcher's ideas), give those they find the most qualified/promising a large sum of money, and let them do whatever they want? How effective would this be relative to the traditional model?

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    How is what you are describing different from an endowed chair? – Dawn Nov 5 '18 at 4:17
  • Don't endowed chairs still have to write research proposals? – Allure Nov 5 '18 at 4:20
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    Can the funder use a model where they fund the researcher? Sure they can, it's their money and they can decide how to award it. And such awards do exist; they're often called "fellowships". Is it effective? Well, that depends on the particular goal that the funder is looking to accomplish, and what metrics they use to evaluate success. – Nate Eldredge Nov 5 '18 at 4:55
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    What you call "fund someone" is called "hire someone". – user9646 Nov 5 '18 at 8:25
  • Actually and endowed chair is normally given to a university or department, not to an individual. One is awarded such a chair (by the university) based on their past work and promise, not for a particular proposal for research. Sometimes a chair is offered as bait to attract a promising candidate. – Buffy Nov 5 '18 at 13:52

There are a few funding schemes which are working exactly in this direction, giving the researcher lots of freedom in their line of research. Sometimes, the funding comes in form of a "prize" and the prize may only be used for further research topics.

In a smaller scale (you were talking about a larger amount of money) each tenuring decision is such a grant: The university is investing a significant amount of money into a person without any further control about the future research directions (at least in Germany). There is just some hope that people will not stop doing interesting things. If you sum up the regular amount of money a professor recieves, plus the additional staff / expenses granted, you end up with large amounts of money. I must say this freedom is something I really enjoy, and for me it is my major motivation for staying in academia.

Of course, those professors still write grant applications...

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  • +1. Good point about tenure. – Buffy Nov 5 '18 at 14:50
  • Can you name these funding schemes that are working in this direction? I'd like to take a look. – Allure Nov 7 '18 at 23:43
  • Something which is close to your idea is humboldt-professur.de/en – OBu Nov 9 '18 at 14:26

The truth of the matter is that a surprisingly large fraction of basic research funding is spent more on "heads" than "ideas" anyway. First of all, you have personal grants (such as the ERC Advanced Grant) or sponsored professorships (such as this one). While these will typically require that the candidate defines some project, at least 50% of the evaluation is not of the project, but of the past success and future promise of the candidate. It is easy to argue that these funding schemes are betting much more on people than on the specific project.

Further, even for "normal" basic science projects, one typically has significant freedom in how to actually execute the project (to the extent that one not infrequently ends up running a completely different project than what has been pitched originally). Funding agencies of course know this, and are often willing to grant a strong applicant with a weakly developed idea money, where they would almost certainly refuse a weaker applicant with the same research proposal. This is again the same basic idea - for a strong applicant, they may assume that they will do something useful with the money (even if the currently pitched problem seems not well developed), whereas they won't give the same benefit of doubt to a weaker candidate. Again, they are betting more on heads than on projects (also because at the end of the day in your typical basic science open project call, they don't really care about the specifics of any project - they only care that good science is done).

There is, of course, an annoying flipside to this. Namely that it leads to a "the rich getting richer" effect that is very hard to overcome for less established researchers. For grants such as ERC you are basically out of the running if you are not already among the best in the world in your field, and even for smaller project grants an inexperienced researcher will often need an outstanding idea to be able to compete with all the researchers with established credentials (who, of course, typically have good proposals in addition to a better track record).

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  • Regarding the last paragraph: the ERC has several categories for this reason. You are competing with people of the same approximate "academic age" as you. Once you're past 12 years after the PhD is a different story, though. – user9646 Nov 5 '18 at 17:45
  • @user2357 Even in the Starting Grant competition, if you are not among the best in the world in your age class you aren't going to make it. Europe is large, ERC is extremely attractive, and the window is not very narrow. Anyway, I don't have a solution for this problem - I am just saying that funding heads rather than ideas almost automatically leads to the problem that the same people tend to get most of the money. – xLeitix Nov 5 '18 at 17:48

I think you may be a bit wrong on how it works (or at least how it was posed). The solicitation of proposals is generally very broad and the applicant(s) have fairly wide latitude within those bounds for proposals. Secondly, the proposal will also have to convince the funder that the applicant(s) are capable of carrying out the research. This will largely be based on their history and it becomes easier to get funding if you have carried out successful projects in the past. So, the researcher is indeed looked at, but in conjunction with the research rather than independently.

Of course, the medieval model of "patronage" was that a wealthy or powerful patron would support a scholar independent of what they might do. This happened in both the arts and sciences, of course. It isn't used so much anymore, though, I suppose that there are a few "gentlemen scholars" (regardless of sex, actually) supported by spouses or rich uncles/aunts.

The problem with the patronage model is that trust needs to be established. Just as in the standard model, this would normally depend on past successful work, unless there is some personal tie.

Note that I have experience only in the US. Mileage (kilometerage?) may differ elsewhere.

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