Uncertainty and Individual Discretion in Allocating Research Funds
39 Pages Posted: 7 Aug 2017 Last revised: 31 Jan 2020
Date Written: February 28, 2018
There is a long-standing tradition in public research funding agencies of distributing funds via peer review, which aggregates evaluations of proposed research ideas from a group of external experts. Despite complaints that this process is biased against novel ideas, there is poor understanding of an alternative system that may overcome this bias: the use of individual discretion. Here, we conduct the first quantitative study of how individual discretion affects a research funding portfolio. Using internal project selection data from the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), we describe how a portfolio of projects selected by individual discretion differs from a portfolio of projects selected by traditional peer review. We show that ARPA-E program directors prefer to fund proposals with greater disagreement among experts, especially if at least one reviewer thinks highly of the proposal. This preference leads ARPA-E to fund more uncertain and creative research ideas, which supports the agency’s mission of pursuing novel ideas for transformational energy technology.
Keywords: research funding, project selection, peer review, uncertainty, innovation
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