Is ‘universal basic income’ a better option than research grants?

Instead of spending time competing for competitive funding, academics should be given a lump sum, paper suggests

October 10, 2017
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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.


Print headline: ‘Basic income’ to fund research

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Reader's comments (6)

In principle, an excellent idea. I suggest, however, a slight modification: a basic research income per year (say £50,000 in the experimental sciences, less for theoretical work), combined with additional competitive grants. This would give scientists a feeling that they can choose their research directions indepently of current fads, while giving the more "ambitious" ones an opportunity to scale up their work.
Yes a great idea, but for performance and competence there must be some parameters, like more funds should be given to good performance on later stages after the equal start up in the same field etc
I think this is a great idea, if the balancing of the lump sizes works out and there is another mechanism to apply for extra funds to establish new equipment, etc. However, I have another comment. The way this article is written it suggests that: 1. postdocs were students (they are not) and 2. only tenured academic were 'researchers', when really postdocs and graduate students are lifting the main weight of research work. There are also un-tenured principle investigators who lead their own research groups and currently apply for public funding ... and if I'm not mistaken, not all 'tenured academics' are necessarily leaders of a research group.
I am not opposed to general universal income at an individual level, but a special one for academia that includes research grants would put a damper on any little entrepreneurship in academia, will be a big barrier to entry for new entrants and will provide an even more unfair playing fields to researchers outside the academia. A better and simpler option is to make the grant application process simpler. It is not the writing of proposals that are deemed a waste (basic business cases clarifies the project to all parties including those who propose the research), it is the other administrative matters such as filling out forms, submitting in specific formats etc that are real time wasters with no value add.
I believe NSERC in Canada used to provide a reliable income stream for researchers (subject to a 5-yearly evaluation to check it wasn't being completely wasted), with a separate grant scheme for projects that required additional cash. I'm told it made planning research projects a lot easier as there was much more stability from year to year, and there wasn't the need to 'pad' grant applications to ensure having money to subsidise other projects.
Good idea - though as a historian, I'd be happy with a universal basic research income of less than 1% of the figures suggested here!