BY AARON BARLOW
Over the past few years, I’ve become less and less enthusiastic about grants as a funding mechanism for higher-education-related projects. It’s not just the Koch brothers and their use of grants to promote particular ideologies but even the gentler tugs by funders such as the NEH toward consideration of particular arenas or inclusion of certain classes of participants. All of these, well meant or not, skew research into certain directions, meaning others are avoided, rich for exploration though they might be.
The New York Times for July 24, 2016 has an article, “Researchers Who Exposed VW Gain Little Reward From Success.” Reporter Jack Ewing writes that the people who look into things like what turned out to be VW emissions cheating “tend to be mavericks.”
And mavericks never are the ones who get the big grants. Those go to “safe” projects that fit into the expectations of the granting agencies.
We need a new model for research funding in higher education, one that funds departments and even individuals and not particular projects and even programs. One that is not conditional and that is on-going. Researchers need to know that they can take chances without jeopardizing future funding; researches need to know that failure is not cataclysmic in terms of future funding.
As Ewing writes, “The success of Mr. [Dan] Carder’s David against Volkswagen’s Goliath illustrates the huge disparity in resources between carmakers and oversight groups.” It also should be a warning that few cobbled-together projects are going to have the success that this group had, especially when most funding is going to divert not just money but attention and even the most highly skilled researchers away from what can turn out to be extremely important projects. You can bet that VW and the other automakers are going to step up their funding of projects with university affiliation. You can also bet that those projects are going to be “safe” ones, in terms of automaker considerations. You can bet that they will spend every dime necessary to ensure another Carder does not arise, doing so by diverting researcher attention to their own goals.