A better model for funding astronomy?

The current way we fund astronomy research in this country is
horribly flawed. There must be a better way. Let me suggest one that I
believe that we should consider.

Now, yes, you are all going to be cynical and say, "Rob thinks it's
flawed because he's had trouble getting funding, and the main flaw is
that he doesn't have any funding." While it is true that I have been
burned by the system, and am admittedly bitter about that, I think that
there are rational arguments for my case.

Let us consider the boundary conditions. Let's assume that there is
some drive to continue to perform astronomy research in this country.
Let us assume that the amount of funding for this research is at the
level that it is right now. Let me set aside the costs of moderate to
large sized space missions, because those are such large-scale
individual projects that they merit individual attention, and because
they are different from the sort of thing I want to talk about now.

Let us just consider National Science Foundation (NSF) funding. NSF
astronomy funding goes to two primary things. First, there are
facilities, primarily the national observatories. Second, there are
individual investigator grants.

I wouldn't change the way facilities are funded, but I think that we
could be far more efficient in our funding of individual
investigators. Here's how it works right now. Each year, once a year,
there goes out a call for proposals. Many astronomers submit one or
more 15-page proposals for funding. Over the next 5-8 months, panels
drawn from the same general pool of astronomers convene to read,
discuss, and judge these proposals. Proposals are ranked ordered based
on this process, and then some fraction of them receive funding. At the
moment, that fraction is something like 1 in 5 or 1 in 6.

If you think about it, this represents a huge expenditure of effort,
much of it wasted. If 80% or more of the proposals submitted are not
receiving funding, then the time that it took into writing those
proposals has yielded no return. Now, it's not quite that bad.
First of all, many proposals will be resubmitted, and if they are funded
later, the effort that went into originally writing them isn't entirely
wasted. Second, I will admit that proposal writing can give benefits to
the researcher even beyond the possibility of receiving research
funding. Specifically, it forces you to think critically about your
project, and can help bring some focus to what you intend to do.
Indeed, if you complete this project, you will eventually have to do
much of that anyway.

However, the fact remains that a lot of effort is spent to no end.
We have people writing proposals and ending up unfunded. We have people
developing multiple projects in hopes that one of them will be
funded— the other project development ending up wasted time.
(Presumably, the investigator still thought there was some value to it
if he went so far as to submit a proposal.) Let us also not forget the
effort that goes into the reviewing and evaluating of these proposals.
Right now, a lot of astronomers are spending quite amount of time
reading and evaluating proposals that will never yeild any actual

Is this the best way to spend our time?

There are other casualties of this system. There are the people
whose research productivity goes to hell becuase not only do they not
have any money to do anything, they lose their motivation after
repeatedly having their grant proposals turned down, putting their
continued employment in jeapordy. (Most research Universities will not
grant you tenure if you are unfunded.) There is the fact that you have
no security, no confidence that you will have future funding. At
Vanderbilt, in my department, there is this continual push to disallow
professors to have students on teaching assistantships after those
students' first two years. There are all sorts of good reasons why this
is best for the students. Unfortunately, even if I do get tenure at
Vanderbilt, I will never be in a position to give a student any
confidence that I will have funding for them in a few years. NFS grants
last up to 3 years. Perhaps, just perhaps, a student can get lucky and
finish her second year right as I get the grant, giving her just enough
time on an RA (research assistantship) to finish a PhD. However, the
student would have been working for me before that time on spec. If the
grant comes earlier, it will expire before the student continues, with
no guarantee that the student wlil have funding thereafter.

It gets worse. The last three years, I've submitted an NSF proposal
that would have funded my curent gradudate student, who is entering her
third year. They have not received funding. This year, the NSF program
officer all but told me that I should come up with a different project
if I want to have a chance of receiving funding. I found this very
frustrating; I have a student who, along with myself, has spent two
years already working on this project. Do I tell her to start over on
her PhD? On a project whose funding can not arrive for at least a year,
and even then is highly speculative? The uncertainties and delays
associated with the way we fund astronomy right now makes it very
difficult for many of us to provide any reasonable kind of security of
funding for our graduate students, even as our Universities and
departments demand that we do so.

So how could we do better?

Consider the following model.

In addition to the boundary condition above— a certain number
of NSF dollars each year that goes to individual investigators— we
have another. There are quite a number of astronomers out there would
would like some of that funding. I wlil divide them into two very broad
groups. First, you have astronomers at primary research instutituions;
these are PhD granting univesities and astronomers at national labs or
national universities. Second, you have astronomers who are at primary
teaching institutions, colleges that grant only undergraduate or,
perhaps, masters degrees. The NSF does fund some of the latter, and
indeed through the RUI (Research at Undergraduate Institutions) program,
recognizes that reseaerch done in those contexts is of enough value to
warrant funding even if the responsibilities of PIs at those
institutions make it difficult for them to compete with the research
abilities of those at larger institutions.

We have the money. We have the astronomers. We have to get the
money to the astronomers, divided up in a way that best serves the goal
of learning more about the Universe, of researching the science that is

Right now, we do it by making everybody write proposals and promise
to do good things. While I do not dispute that there is some
correlation between your ability to promise great things and to produce
science— although at least some of that comes simply from the fact
that he who is funded is able to do the work— our asssessment is
based on the wrong things. We think there is high accountability here,
because projects are judged on their scientific merit. But the result
is all of the side effects I mentioned above; a lot of effort spent in
vain, and a lot of people living with motivation-killing and gut-tearing
uncertainty and insecurity.

Right now, if you are junior and have startup money left, or if you
can scrape together enough pilot funding, you may be able to perform
some of the research in a project before you get funding. However, the
model assumes that you write the proposal, and the project is funded if
the proposal is good. We spend time devleoping and working on projects
that we may never officially be granted the resources to pursue. What's
more, there's a delay. We have the project idea, we learn about it, we
propose for funding... and, even if it's granted, if we're not at an
institution that owns its own telescope resources, we then have to start
the cycle of proposing for telescope time. If we're lucky, we
get it within a year of the proposal being granted. If we're not, we
never get the time, and so can never really do the project which was
funded! I have personal knowledge of cases where this has happened.
It's just nuts.

Why not the following. Every institution that has an astronomy
program will be designated a certain fractaion of the pie. In my case,
Vanderbilt will, next year, have either four or five professors on the
regular teaching faculty. Instead of each of us writing multiple
proposals each year, Vanderbilt astronomy in general would receive a
block grant from the NFS. Likewise for each other institution, based on
their size and the evaluation of the program. The division of the money
amongst the invididual astronomers would then be the institution's
problem to work out. Doubtless, there would be back stabbing and
horrible inefficiency in some cases, but it wouldn't be ubiquitous.
Right now, if you think about it, the way we fund astronomy represents a
level of micromanagement fromthe very top to the very bottom.

Each institituion's astronomy program would then be evaluated every
three or five years. We would still need review panels for this, but
far less time would be required. First of all, we'd only be reviewing
those who are actually receiving funding, insead of five times as many
proposals as that. Second, the reviews would come at a sane interval.
Astronomers would have more time to focus on doing science and learning
about the Unvierse, instead of spending such a huge fraction of their
time writing usually-futile proposals.

Accountability is still there. If an institution performs
particularly poorly in an evaluation, perhaps it is put on warning, and
scheduled for another evaluation one year later. The total amount of
funding each institution receives would grow or shrink according to the
results of the evaluation. Perhaps new good faculty have been hired, or
perhaps the research needs have changed... or, perhaps, the quality of
the research that is being performed is not up to par.

There is no need to worry about accountability at the individual
scientist level. We are all already judged to hell and gone by our
instutitions. There is such a pool of talented potential faculty out
there that the people who are hired for our jobs are impressive. They
all deserve to be funded anyway! And, proving that we deserve to
be tenured is no walk in the park. We should trust that everybody is a
professional who cares about doing good work in the field, instead of
putting in place assessments that require us to prove ourselves through
promises constantly. We should trust that the departments and
universities wlil assess their own... and, if we see that departments
and univerisites are not doing that well, the level of funding that the
whole program receives will suffer.

There would be many advantages to this to this model of funding
beyond the saving of effort. The advantages in security, and the
ability to plan ahead a few years allowing for the times at which
graduate students arrive and finihs, would make for a funding model that
matches how we really do the science far better. We would no longer be
evaluated on what we promise to do— which is how proposals work
right now— but based on how well we are doing. We would be judged
on the problems we choose to address, and on how well we are addressing
those problems.

In the end, astronomers would have more time to do what we're
supposed to be funding with our research dollars, and we would remove a
big source of stress and uncertainty that is right now a barrier for
many in actually producing that research.

Can't we think about this? Must we keep doing things the way that
they are done now, the way that they've always been done? Can't we
recognize that research quality of individuals is already judged at the
institution level, and that regular judgement of institution quality
makes more sense for an enterprise as large as the one we're involved in
right now? And, can't we find a system that is more humane than
the current soul-killing system?

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To some extent this is how it works in Sweden. The universities (at the faculty level) get a pot of research money that is allocatted internally. In addition, you usually need to apply for external funding as well, but at least there is a safety net of sorts to be able to wrap up an ongoing project or whatever.

A separate issue are PhD students. They are employed by the university, on specific money separate from any research grants, and are guaranteed a set time of four years at 80% employment for a practical duration of five years - you fill in the last 20% with teaching or administrative duties. And this is a real job, with vacation, pension benefits, sick and child leave and so on. You never risk getting thrown out just because the project you got included on suddenly loses its funding.

I think you seriously overlook the way this would perpetuate in-crowd versus out-crowd and the oldboy-ness of science. Things are bad enough as it is (especially talking in biomedical science land but see Zuska, absinthe, et al). In NIH land there are already a mixture of things that are like you suggest. Large scale projects ("Centers" and "program projects" in NIHspeak) can provide some support to all and have a tendency (particularly Centers) to be less affected by funding swings. Senior investigators get long-standing grants renewed even when they are sucky proposals, get MERIT extensions (10 yrs noncompeting instead of 5) and interesting little handouts like the K05. Yet these systems come into play mostly past your particular stage. Would dropping the benefits down to the asst prof stage solve the"humane treatment" problem? I don't think so. and it comes with so many drawbacks in terms of perpetuating conservativeness in science, the old boys club and other badness.

What about the scientist who doesn't have a job yet? Won't your system come down even harder on them? Not able to compete for funding on the strength of a good idea, must acquire a real hard money tenure track job first. In biomed land this would disadvantage a big category of scientists. Dept members will be loathe to add too many new faculty because this will decrease their own bottom line in your system. And their choices of new faculty might be shaped more by an assessment of how said person contributes to their 5-yr review for funds than by scientific quality. what if the NSF insisted on ethnic/gender diversity (and hell yes they would) for increasing a dept allocation for example?

Rob, you are also a little too sanguine about the effects of Job-and-Funding-for-Life would have on productivity. Ask some people from the French biomedical research system how this works out for them...

I think you seriously overlook the way this would perpetuate in-crowd versus out-crowd and the oldboy-ness of science.

I realize that's an issue-- but it's not clear to me that it would be any different from what it is right now. Consider that the only people who have a real chance at getting research funding are people who are at an institution (observatory, government lab, college, or university) to host that funding. Those are exactly the places I'm talking about funding.

As long as new people can get jobs at colleges and universities-- which they manifestly can-- they will have access to funding under the model I describe.

In astronomy, it's very much the exception rather than the rule for somebody to be the PI on an NSF grant before they have a faculty position. As such, the boogey man of "scientists without a job not getting funding" is already in place.

and it comes with so many drawbacks in terms of perpetuating conservativeness in science, the old boys club and other badness.

I've already addressed the old-boys club.

I think that you're wrong in terms of perpetuating conservativeness in science. The problem right now is that to get money or telescope time, you have to propose to do things that the committees reviewing your proposal think are doable. This means that really "out there" proposals tend not to be funded. What gets the funding most is going to be the "trendy science of the day." I think my model will give people the security to be more diverse in the sorts of topics they pursue.

Rob, you are also a little too sanguine about the effects of Job-and-Funding-for-Life

Again, that's not really what I'm talking about. The programs will still be subject to regular (every few year) reviews. If a program is foundering and not doing much, it receives a cut, or even gets cut off. I'm talking about moving the policing of individuals to departments and universities, and then having the departments and universities policed by the national foundation. I'm not talking about guaranteed funding for life!

I *am* talking about making the system less capricious, and giving you some room to make mistakes and breathe a bit. But I'm certainly not talking about taking accountability out of the system, nor am I talking about guaranteeing funding to everybody who shows a card.


Just to clarify a little bit. In current NIH-funded biomedical science there is a very big category of scientists who get at least the first grant with something other than a traditional "job". There is a diversity of non-tenure track positions called "instructor", "staff scientist", "research (asst, assoc) professor" and the like that are permitted to apply for and hold grants. Similarly, there is a trend for Universities to make certain promotions (even to tenure track asst prof) *contingent* upon grant funding. Even though according to NIH officialdom this is a no-no.

many of these people go on to long careers, either on tenure track or not, and therefore I think this entry mechanism must be taken seriously. For biomed funding anyway. YMMV in NSFland?

even with periodic review of programs, the pressure to produce changes. for the better you might think. others would argue to the detriment of the science. the criteria for continuation changes as well. Our best example is the Center grant which is a small collection of related research projects, say 5 main investigators, and a few associated service "cores". those can often incorporate other sub-PIs and all parts incorporate a collection of investigators contributing various amounts of time. Once established, these things are very unlikely (in comparison with a single project) to crash on competitive review (every 5 yrs). Budgets can be altered and sub-projects may be canned. But ultimately if you are in one of these babies it is a very good deal and provides some protection from the storm outside (normal grant competition). many of the benefits you enumerate and envision apply. But as someone who makes most of my daily research bread from independent projects and am likely to for a time to come, these things seem like incredible rich-get-richer boondogles which waste (particularly in the "cores") funds which should be spent elsewhere on unprotected competing grants...

I think the lack of any work safety on productivity is overrated at best and quite possibly directly harmful. If it were the case you'd see a similar effect in the commercial and manufacturing sectors in different countries (that have different levels of worker protection). There is none - places like France and Sweden turn out to have higher productivity than places with a lot less safety.

Sure, if you can't be fired no matter what, your motivation to show up for work is likely to suffer. But you know, there is a middle ground between one-year temporary gigs and lifetime sinecures. Do regular employment, with the possibility to fire or demote someone for non-performance, and ability to terminate people if the budget situation worsens should be plenty.

Janne: I'm in anecdotal land here but your view doesn't square with my experience. Academicians routinely have spurts of papers going out at the time of the tenure decision. Also, speaking to grant review in NIH it is amazing how much more productive people are right before the competing renewal application for a project goes out. Also how many papers go out just prior to the revised application when they get back a critique for "lack of productivity".

I'm not entirely sure how long the typical NSF grant lasts but I'd assume more than a year. The smaller NIH grants are 2 years but most are 3-5. but this is not my point. my point is that while Rob is proposing ~5 yr review, the whole point is that the individual would be less subject to cancellation thus, presumably a less competitive review in some sense.

If I were the one on the inside of such a system, I'd think this cool. If I were on the outside, and my chances of getting funding were being lowered because of this system, I'd be ticked. The whole thrust that Rob is advancing here is that funding would be directed to people who are otherwise less able to survive in direct competition, is it not?

Rob, what effect would your proposal have on whole departments? Don't you think there would be some pressure for "stars" to gravitate toward departments and universities with other "stars" of the field so that they can maintain their funding? Wouldn't this be bad for the mix of a given department? Wouldn't this make dept politics even more nighmarish? "Dude, you losers lost me my funding!!"

The whole thrust that Rob is advancing here is that funding would be directed to people who are otherwise less able to survive in direct competition, is it not?

No, not really at all. My primary point is that the current system is capricious and too labor intensive.

The same people will be getting the funding, but it will become less of a feast-or-famine sort of thing, and more of a reliable "fund the people doing the work" sort of thing. All the departments I"m talking about funding are the sources of the proposals (and therefore the grants) going to the NSF right now. It's not trying to fund the disadvantaged; it's trying to make funding more predictable so that we lose less sleep and get fewer ulcers, and so that we all spend less of our time writing and evaluating failed proposals.

Don't you think there would be some pressure for "stars" to gravitate toward departments and universities with other "stars" of the field so that they can maintain their funding?

Dude, that's already there. There are a small number of departments where the stars gravitate. Harvard, Caltech... once somebody is a standout, one of those places goes out and recruits them. By and large, that's the only way that people get on to the faculty at Harvard. And, they have the advantage in the funding because they have the resources that make panels think that they should be funded. The result is that everybody else is more likely to get no funding at all, not just less funding.

Yes, it would introduce new politics and such. But it would eliminate a lot of old politics.

What I hear you saying is that "we had better not change because the new way of doing things may have problems." I don't buy it, because the current way of doing things has TERRIBLE problems. If we really want a chance of improving things, we have to try doing something radically different.


it comes with so many drawbacks in terms of perpetuating conservativeness in science, the old boys club and other badness

I don't know anything about how NIH operates, but I do know something about NSF and NASA programs. As Rob says, we have these problems under the existing system at NSF, and they apply equally well to NASA's science programs. The review panels are looking for reasons to put your proposal outside the competitive range (which given the low success rates in most competitions is a necessity), and if your proposal is outside the mainstream of thought the panel will take that as a reason. It's compounded in astronomy by the need to apply for telescope time after winning the proposal, but any field requiring highly specialized one- (or few-)of a kind facilities will have similar issues--try getting beam time for cutting-edge particle physics experiments, for example.

Rob, what effect would your proposal have on whole departments?

This is a valid question to raise: any change of this magnitude must be implemented carefully. My own expectation: Departments will tend to specialize to a greater extent than they do already. Only the largest and most powerful research university departments can cover all areas of physics (or chemistry or biology); most choose one or two areas to cover moderately well and spot cover the rest. The danger is that a department will become overspecialized, e.g. turn into nothing but a galactic astronomy or semiconductor solid state shop, to the detriment of students.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 02 Jul 2007 #permalink

"There is no need to worry about accountability at the individual scientist level" ... there certainly are departments that don't worry about pesky things like accountability. google the name "Ward Churchill".

Seriously, giving up accountability is NOT good for science.

By Keith Bierman (not verified) on 02 Jul 2007 #permalink

I'm hardly talking about giving up accountability. Again, that's a misconception and a straw man. Read my plan again.

What I'm talking about is giving up micromanagement from the highest to the lowest levels.


I agree very much to what you said:

"if you think about it, the way we fund astronomy represents a level of micromanagement from the very top to the very bottom."

However after reading up on the entire article I was left to feel that the system WAS actually designed to slow the research down ?

[decision making is better left in individual hands, group decision making almost always slow things down]

May be you should have a look at different things like *game theory*, to deal with situations where resources are limited.

By Nathan Chen (not verified) on 03 Jul 2007 #permalink

"In current NIH-funded biomedical science there is a very big category of scientists who get at least the first grant with something other than a traditional "job". There is a diversity of non-tenure track positions called "instructor", "staff scientist", "research (asst, assoc) professor" and the like that are permitted to apply for and hold grants."

Do you think that in the current funding situation, these non-tenure-track people are able to compete for R01s?

By PhysioProf (not verified) on 03 Jul 2007 #permalink

PhysioProf: Yes, these people demonstrably DO compete successfully for R01 funding. In good times and in bad. They may be at a relative disadvantage in some cases but with the recent emphasis on helping out New Investigators from the Program perspective they now have some advantages too. They may be under the expectation that they get a "starter grant" like the R03/R21 first, which they do, but in some Universities this is enough to be launched.

Interesting. I would have predicted that non-tenure-track investigators' grants get discounted by study sections relative to those of tenure-track investigators. This could occur as part of the analysis of investigator "independence" and/or "institutional support".

(Sorry, Rob, for this diversion from the astronomy funding issue.)

By PhysioProf (not verified) on 04 Jul 2007 #permalink