Using democracy to award research funding: an observational study

Research Integrity and Peer Review 2 (1) (2017)
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Abstract

BackgroundWinning funding for health and medical research usually involves a lengthy application process. With success rates under 20%, much of the time spent by 80% of applicants could have been better used on actual research. An alternative funding system that could save time is using democracy to award the most deserving researchers based on votes from the research community. We aimed to pilot how such a system could work and examine some potential biases.MethodsWe used an online survey with a convenience sample of Australian researchers. Researchers were asked to name the 10 scientists currently working in Australia that they thought most deserved funding for future research. For comparison, we used recent winners from large national fellowship schemes that used traditional peer review.ResultsVoting took a median of 5 min (inter-quartile range 3 to 10 min). Extrapolating to a national voting scheme, we estimate 599 working days of voting time (95% CI 490 to 728), compared with 827 working days for the current peer review system for fellowships. The gender ratio in the votes was a more equal 45:55 (female to male) compared with 34:66 in recent fellowship winners, although this could be explained by Simpson’s paradox. Voters were biased towards their own institution, with an additional 1.6 votes per ballot (inter-quartile range 0.8 to 2.2) above the expected number. Respondents raised many concerns about the idea of using democracy to fund research, including vote rigging, lobbying and it becoming a popularity contest.ConclusionsThis is a preliminary study of using voting that does not investigate many of the concerns about how a voting system would work. We were able to show that voting would take less time than traditional peer review and would spread the workload over many more reviewers. Further studies of alternative funding systems are needed as well as a wide discussion with the research community about potential changes.

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