The Corner

Education

The Perverse Incentives in University Science Funding

When Troy Camplin and a co-researcher sought funding for a university institute devoted to the study of spontaneous orders, they were turned down. The provost declared that he just didn’t believe that complexity was worthy of scientific study. End of story.

That unhappy experience provides the background for Camplin’s Martin Center Clarion Call: “Perverse Incentives in Science: 21st Century Funding for 20th Century Research.”

Camplin explains,

Our institutions are dominated by those doing science in the current paradigm. Which is what we should in fact expect. But that means that most funding sources — whether government or private — are going to be conservative and fund the already-established rather than investigations into something that may not work out. And scientists tend to protect their turf against new ideas that could replace them.

One consequence is that lots of money flows into ideas that have already been researched well past the point of diminishing returns. Another is that science professors spend an inordinate amount of time writing grant proposals, at the expense of actually doing research.

Worse still, we are seeing the increasing politicization of science. Camplin writes,

Such politicization is also a perhaps unsurprising result of the breakdown of the old paradigm in science. When those with institutional power feel threatened, they tend to politicize the situation to try to retain that power. This is part of what happened with the recent March for Science, held in large cities around the country. It wasn’t really a march for science, but rather a march for politicized science in the current paradigm.

Camplin has identified a serious problem, but doesn’t have a solution for it. Eventually, he thinks, a new paradigm of funding will emerge, but until then we will suffer through a lot of waste and folly. (Dr. Michael Mann comes to mind as an example.)

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.