Europe and Global Challenges

As detailed here, three major European Foundations, the Compagnia di San Paolo in Turin, Italy, the Riksbankens Jubileumsfond in Stockholm, Sweden, and the VolkswagenStiftung in Hanover, Germany, have launched a call for applications for for planning grants of up to 50,000 Euro (proposal deadline April 30, 2009), aimed at preparing research projects into global challenges. This wiki shall serve to draft such a "planning grant" proposal, while discussions on this are referred to this thread at FriendFeed. Early 2010, another call is foreseen for projects up to 1,000,000 Euro.

From the call (full text here):

The focus of the research groups should be on policy issues which are of special concern for the European Union (EU) and for its partners in the neighbourhood as well as in other regions of the world. Procedural and organisational aspects of addressing policy issues might be covered along with the research issues themselves. Disciplines which are concerned with “global governance” will obviously contribute to the new programme. Inputs from other areas of knowledge, e.g. science and medicine, might be needed to address some of the issues under examination, but the disciplinary focus within each research group should be on the social sciences and the humanities.

Applications must be submitted by at least two research environments from different geographical regions (e.g. Europe and Latin America), of which at least one has to be located in Europe. The core of the research groups should be based in Europe.

The issues studied should be relevant for the EU as a global actor. Preference will be given to proposals which relate to contributions from various disciplines, which are innovative and cover new ground. It is up to the applicants to show why and how their proposals are feasible and why this particular research formation is appropriate for the research questions at hand.

A possible approach towards a proposal, directed at sustainable allocation of research funds as a challenge on both a European and a global scale

Title: The Web 2.0 economics of research grant peer review

Key points

(quotes refer to Gordon & Poulin 2009 who examined the costs of peer review at the Canadian NSERC)

  1. Peer review is an essential component of current research fund allocation procedures across disciplines and nations and used throughout the EU
  2. "The present system of control through peer review has yet to be tested"
  3. "When a grant application is not funded, the expertise that drove it, the questions it addresses, and the possible breakthroughs it offers are often lost."
  4. "The kind of science done under grant competitions is short term. As in politics, the horizon for funding is at most 5 years, whereas major unsolved scientific problems usually require decades or even a lifetime of commitment."
  5. "The challenge … is that few direct and quantifiable measures of the larger and longer-term results of research are available”
  6. A "mixed portfolio approach permits us to take advantage of the breakthroughs when they occur" (e.g. " 40% of an agency’s budget be distributed evenly as baseline funding; 50% be available for regular peer reviewed competition, for projects requiring more funds than baseline; 10% be available for industry collaborations (Poulin and Gordon, 2001).")
  7. "We would suggest … that developing countries could leapfrog ahead by adopting systems from the start that encourage innovation."
  8. "In summary, we recommend that fair minded and practical government, business, and science agents work together to conduct a ‘natural experiment’ to test our hypothesis: innovation will be increased by the elimination of peer review at the idea/discovery stage."
  9. This grant proposal scheme (up to 50,000 Euro in the pilot phase, up to 1,000,000 in the second phase) could allow for such a natural experiment with minimal time delay, though on a much smaller budget scale, with the following configuration (or similar):
    1. 90% of the funds are used to fund small research projects at the idea/discovery stage, i.e. roughly 45 projects at 1,000 Euro each. 10% of the funds would go into networking the grantees and other interested parties into writing a full proposal for the second stage, or used to buffer unforeseeable costs (e.g. publication fees)
    2. Eligibility for the funds: anyone who has published their first paper in an international peer-reviewed scientific journal within the last five years (the scale of the funds fits best to graduate students and postdocs who are otherwise rarely eligible for independent funds, and they will most likely be the ones who spend most of their scientific career in an open science environment)
    3. Application procedure (should be simple but fair): Two options - (i) Find a factual error in any approved article on Citizendium or Scholarpedia (two scholarly inclined wikis) or (ii) start an article (non-native speakers of English may chose to improve existing material) and get it approved. Then let us know, and if you are amongst the first 45 to reach there, you will get the grant. (Grant writing is an important skill, and writing an encyclopedic entry on a topic comes close. Usually, the application procedure does not fit society, particularly when a proposal is rejected. With this wiki approach, there will be a benefit to both the applicant and society, even if the applicant happens not to make it into the first 45.)
    4. Once the research starts, the notebook should be kept in public (e.g. via OpenWetWare)
    5. At least once in a pre-defined period (say, three months into the project), each grantee is expected to blog about the project
    6. If the second-phase proposal is funded, the first-stage grants should be renewable (possibly even with a budget increase) upon public review (and rating) of the blog post(s), and additional funds should be used to (i) do the research that this call is targeted at, probably by looking at funding agencies with a more European component than the NSERC (e.g. ERC, the three funding agencies who issued the call, or HFSP; much of the data needed to analyze the latter is in their Annual reports, freely available online) and some suitable "controls" and (ii) give out more funds, possibly according to a "portfolio"
  10. The whole process of writing the grant in both stages should make extensive use of existing Web 2.0 tools to keep the process participatory

Further possibly useful text snippets

  • Just imagine if all authors currently writing up manuscripts about a subject were instead to coordinate their efforts by collaborating on a single but detailed and balanced citable reference (e.g. on a wiki) in which the topic would be described in and linked to all relevant contexts, updated as new research results pass peer review. As a side effect, the easy availability of context (once the system would be reasonably well adopted by scholarly communities, and the encyclopedic corpus thus reasonably complete) would make it more easy to guide expert attention and thus to identify obvious gaps in current knowledge (e.g. by means of an expert evaluation of items listed on the Most Wanted page), and science funders could then issue a call for research proposals on such topics (e.g. via a Calls subpage, InnoCentive, Mechanical Turk or by more traditional means).
  • Peer review can be crowdsourced under some conditions (e.g. the Popular Choice in the Dance Your PhD Contest, though number of youtube views is manipulable)
  • What if a number of relatively simple open questions (e.g. from previous progress reports of collaborating funding agencies, or from "Questions for future research" sections of recent papers) were posted on some suitable platform (like InnoCentive), and those who provide the answer first would directly get a "baseline grant" grant? Eligibility for next round should depend on previous performance

“I feel that there is some deep social message here… Something like, if you want to have great creativity and innovation you must give complete freedom, but if you want to reap the benefits you must provide a framework.” (from Shirley Wu's 1st open science roundup)

See also

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