Nature recently did an interesting news story on the growing trend for scientific funding agencies to hand out grants via lottery, from among the proposals judged to be fundable. I thought the article did a nice job touching on the various arguments for and against grant lotteries. But I was struck by a quote at the very end from economist Margit Osterloh, an advocate of grant (and publication) lotteries:
If you know you have got a grant or a publication which is selected partly randomly then you will know very well you are not the king of the Universe, which makes you more humble. This is exactly what science needs.”
Ok, this isn’t a big deal. It’s one quote in one article, and based on a skim of some papers it’s not Margit Osterloh’s main reason for favoring grant lotteries. That said, it’s a very puzzling small deal. So at the admitted risk of talking about something that might be best ignored, I’m going to talk about it a bit.
Perhaps Margit Osterloh moves in very different circles than me. Because the scientists I know are well aware that getting a grant (or a publication in a highly selective journal like Nature or Science) is already partly a random process, even if they themselves have been quite successful at grant-getting! Indeed, their knowledge that grant-getting already has a random component is one reason why they might favor grant lotteries (“it’s a partially-random process anyway, we might as well make the randomness official”).
Further, the scientists I know do not think of themselves as kings of the Universe and they don’t need to be taken down a peg! Indeed, my experience is that it’s more common for scientists, especially junior and trainee scientists, to have too little confidence in their own abilities and in the quality of their own scientific work (think imposter syndrome, for instance). Ok, no doubt there’s a minority of arrogant, entitled scientists in the world. But does anyone really think that moving to grant lotteries will make those scientists less arrogant and entitled?
Finally, do we really want the structure of the scientific funding system to be, um, whatever somebody thinks will cultivate moral virtue in scientists? If you are at all tempted by that line of thinking, then I strongly recommend you read this criticism of that line of thinking in a different context. Government funding cuts to safety net programs often are justified on the bullshit grounds that those affected by the cuts will be forced to become more morally virtuous. Do we really want to encourage governments to apply that same bullshit argument to any aspect of science funding (either the amount of funding, or how the funding is allocated)?
In conclusion, there are certainly good, or at least defensible, arguments for grant lotteries. But “they’ll make scientists better people” is not one of them.
p.s. Osterloh’s co-author is Bruno Frey. I leave it to you to decide whether Bruno Frey’s criticisms of current scientific publishing and grant-giving practices should be discounted because of his professional history.