[Column] Take a chance on academia

Columnist Birgit van Driel wonders why NWO does not use chance for the allocation of research grants. She is happy that the subject of drawing lots starts to gain traction.

Birgit van Driel: When a technical degree programme suits you, it is not difficult. (Foto: Sam Rentmeester)

On my first working day at NWO-AES in 2020, I openly wondered why lots were not drawn for honouring grant applications. I felt as though I was swearing in a church and I received a lot of empty words (“we cannot sell this to tax payers”, “our process is objective”, “our process is not random”, “we honour the best proposals”). I went home at the end of that first day without a satisfactory answer. I put the issue aside and thereafter took part in the tried and tested process involving referees, committees, grades and averages that ultimately lead to a ‘lucky few’ receiving a grant and therefore boost to their careers. But the fact remains that there is simply not enough money to fund all the excellent proposals and some people simply lose out (regularly by just missing one – not reproducible by a different committee – decimal point).

Luckily, over the last few years the idea of drawing lots is gaining ground in the discussions around the selection methods (both for grant applications and in the selection of students). For instance, in a recent ‘Science works’ debate, Thijs Bol of the Jonge Akademie suggested drawing lots among the best proposals and highlighted the benefit that this would give a clear signal that while someone belonged to the best group, they simply had bad luck. This would give candidates rejected for a Veni grant the benefits of the status that receiving the grant can bring. I can also imagine that it is easier to handle psychologically as bad luck seems easier to process than an argued rejection. You would still need referees and a committee to identify ‘the best group’ (which you can assume is bigger than the available funds), but leave the final selection to chance.

Science is a game of chance in which the role of luck and bad luck must be recognised and accepted

Just to be clear, I believe that drawing lots for the final stage of grant allocation is a good idea. Other alternative methods of selection are also being probed around the world. For instance the US National Science Foundation (NSF) plans to trial a Golden Ticket. The idea of the Golden Ticket is that reviewers can ‘push’ a proposal, even if they are the only reviewer who supports that particular proposal. This would avoid ‘regression to the mean’ and give more space to risky and potentially pioneering research. Given the decline in disruptive science, about which I wrote two columns ago, this may not be a bad idea.

Knowledge and expertise are of course essential for good scientific research, and you need to ensure that the research that you fund meets some basic quality criteria. But science, like life itself, is also a game of chance in which the role of luck and bad luck must be recognised and accepted. Reviewers cannot predict the future, but what they can do very well is identify the ‘best group’. So let them concentrate on this and embrace luck and bad luck (in various experimental forms) in the second phase of our competitive funding system.

Columnist Birgit van Driel

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