News & Analysis Physics World  August 2016

Dutch funding trial puts ‘wisdom of the crowd’ centre stage

Giving is receiving The Dutch government is supporting a trial funding scheme proposed by ecologist Marten Scheffer that would see researchers allocate half their budgets to other researchers. (Wageningen University)

The Dutch government has agreed to carry out a novel funding experiment that will see researchers directly fund each other’s projects. The new scheme could do away with the peer-review committees that some see as costly, time consuming and inefficient. Sander Dekker, Dutch secretary of state for higher education, says that he is in talks with the NWO, the Dutch science funding agency in the Hague, about how to fund the project.

The new scheme was first proposed in 2009 by Marten Scheffer, a prominent theoretical ecologist from Wageningen University. In the scheme, researchers get a budget – half of which they keep and half they have to allocate to other research groups, thereby allowing the wider community to decide on the most interesting projects and most promising research. “There are too many good people left out in the cold, and we are not even sure the best work gets the most funding,” says Scheffer.

The scheme received a boost last month when a motion stressing the need to experiment with alternative funding procedures was passed. It had been put forward by Dutch MP Eppo Bruins – the former director of the Dutch technology funding agency, STW. “Scientists should do research but instead they are writing proposals most of their time,” says Bruins. “You use the wisdom of the crowd, instead of small commissions and lots of paper work.”

The NWO, which currently allocates about 700m per year for research, states that it was interested in conducting the experiment, but only if additional budget is available. “We have to be careful not to disrupt the current programmes that are aimed at bringing out the best proposals and best researchers,” the agency noted. While Bruins acknowledges that there need to be safeguards against researchers funding their colleagues, he suggests that the budget for the experiment should come from skipping the so-called Zwaartekracht (Gravity) programme that provides hundreds of millions of euros for large scientific collaborations every two years. “Huge sums always go to the same usual suspects, leaving out many talented individual researchers,” he says. “They can do without, for once.”

Martijn van Calmthout