Every tenured academic should receive a “basic income” to fund their research projects, rather than wasting their time submitting largely unsuccessful bids for grants, two researchers say.
All researchers would be entitled to a stipend every five years of about $600,000 (£460,000) in the US and just over $500,000 in the Netherlands if research grants’ total value was shared out equally, the pair calculate, enough to hire a similar number of PhD and postdoctoral students to now and to maintain a healthy travel and equipment budget.
Co-author Krist Vaesen, assistant professor in philosophy at Eindhoven University of Technology, said that he saw “many people being frustrated” and considering leaving academia because of the normally fruitless grant application process.
In Brussels, there were now specialist consultancies dedicated to writing grant applications, he complained: “That’s money not going to science.”
Under the basic income plan, “each researcher gets a share of the research budget” that is currently allocated competitively, he explained (universities would continue to pay researchers’ basic salaries).
A paper setting out the proposal, “How much would each researcher receive if competitive government research funding were distributed equally among researchers?”, published in Plos One, argues that such a scheme would not spread resources too thinly in the US or the Netherlands.
The paper acknowledges that a basic income would fall far short of the funds on offer from some bodies – the European Research Council offers up to €2.5 million (£2.2 million) over five years, for example.
Dr Vaesen admitted that, with a basic income, researchers could no longer afford to lead projects with 10 or more PhD students, but argued that this was no bad thing. “I don’t think that’s so bad because I don’t think one person can supervise so many,” he said. Instead, several researchers would have to pool their money to instigate major projects, he said.
However, in the UK, a “basic income” would be much lower – $364,000 every five years – leaving researchers with only “moderate” funds for equipment and travel once they had hired postdocs and PhD students, meaning that the “worry concerning dilution of resources seems...justified”, the paper says.
The amount of money that academics get could be modulated by the cost of research in the discipline, Dr Vaesen said, or the societal value attached to their work – cancer researchers could get a higher basic income, for example – allowing policymakers to steer research priorities.
The status quo makes sense only if researchers who win money under the current system perform “extraordinarily” above average, Dr Vaesen argued, to make up for time wasted by academics whose applications are unsuccessful, he said.
A basic income would also eliminate gender and ethnicity bias in the grants system, he said. “But in the larger picture, it’s not about fairness, it’s about scientific progress,” he added.