If you’ve ever applied for funding to make your idea happen, or sat on a panel that has to make decisions on this topic, you know that funding is a nightmare of unconscious biases, popularity contests, conservative decision-making and trying to slide a cigarette paper between two applications that are equally as good but you can only fund one. In 2019 we predicted that more organisations would begin to experiment with random allocation of research funding to help tackle these problems. This year we put our money where our mouth is and allocated funding for our Explorations Initiatives by lottery.
Not all funding is suited to this approach, but there are some tangible benefits:
Randomised funding is more widespread than you might at first think. The New Zealand Health Research Council randomly distributed some of its Explorer Grants that are meant to support more adventurous ideas. InnovateUK used a lottery to distribute vouchers to help pay for expert advice, subject to checks on scope and eligibility. In a similar way, Nigeria ran a successful programme of randomised grants for entrepreneurs. And the Volkswagen Foundation partially randomised funding of their 'Experiment!' grants that were created to find audacious new research.
Why not randomise? Innovators could take a “scattergun” approach hoping to secure funding by chance. From time to time funders might want to funnel money toward particular areas of strategic importance such as epidemics or inequality. There might also be caution in distributing support for big ticket items like giant particle accelerators or space telescopes on the roll of the dice. Researchers may see randomisation as an attempt to take decision-making away from experts. And sometimes the merits of research proposals are really easy to judge so randomisation is unnecessary.
While many of these concerns are legitimate, most can be overcome with good design and by applying randomisation to the right sort of research such as small, exploratory awards for early career researchers in emerging fields.
Explorations Initiatives tick many of these boxes making it a good place to start trying out randomised funding.
Find out what we learnt from conducting and evaluating the programme