by Alastair Potts
I've just finished listening to a podcast by Malcom Gladwell entitled "My Little Hundred Million". In it he highlights that most major donations from super-rich philanthropists go to Universities that already have eye-watering endowments than run into the billions of dollars (Stanford, Harvard etc.). Why? Why give well-endowed prestigious universities more money. Well, because they're going to make intellectual superstars that are going to change the world. Right? Give the richest universities more money so they can produce even better intellectuals. There are big problems with this type of thinking — and we'll discuss it in a moment — and I believe its being applied to how we fund science in South Africa.
Gladwell highlights our focus on superstars — if we can create superstars in whichever field, sport, art, science etc., then these people are going to have a disproportionate effect on society. Gladwell calls this the "strong-link" approach, where success is determined by the best "player on the field". There is another way to think about this, called the "weak-link" approach — the overall success of a team is determined by the weakest players, not the strongest. Some sports, such as basketball, can be dominated by a single player — it doesn't matter how many weak players you have on the court as long as you have the superstar who can dribble and shoot up and down the court at will. This demonstrates strong-link thinking. In other sports, the weakest players can affect the entire team irrespective of the superstars. Gladwell cites a book, The Numbers Game, by David Sally and Chris Anderson where they show that soccer leagues should spend less money on getting superstars and rather spend it in improving the quality of their weaker players: "In soccer, what matters is how good your worst player is". It's a weak-link approach, where your chain is only strong as your weakest link. Spend money on strengthening the weakest link.
Gladwell gives other examples of weak-link thinking outside of sport — such as, how do you deal with air-traffic congestion across airports? You don't go and spend all your money on the already fanciest, biggest, most state-of-the-art airport (the Stanford of airports). Rather, you spend it on those smaller, less prestigious airports that are not coping. By spending on less-prestigious airports has a far greater impact to the overall air transport system. If philanthropists wanted to have greater impacts on universities, then they should give their money to poorer universities — they teach more students, and more money will lead substantially greater improvements, relatively, than giving to a university that already has state-of-the-art everything.
Two different ways to think about how to spend money and get the best return-on-investment — can you guess which type of thinking is followed by science funding in South Africa? We can look at the South African Research Chair Initiative as an example — give a few researchers in the community a lot of money to conduct their very important research. Turn them into research superstars. That's strong-link thinking. We create a few super-researchers and they will have an disproportionate effect on society. It's not only the SARCHI chairs. I've sat on review panels where only the "top" projects will be funded. Which projects made it to the "top" (i.e. fulfilled the most criteria)? By-and-large those projects that already had funding from other sources. And, the top projects also, invariably, asked for the most funding. More funding, lots more funding, was given to projects that already had funding! What about those smaller, focused, projects that didn't tick as many boxes? Well, they don't make it high enough up the list to get funded. I can remember one project in particular — it would have been run by one researcher on a tiny budget and involved laborious routine data collection that would have provided an absolutely fundamental database for all other researchers in the field. It barely ticked any boxes (no international collaboration, not a big sexy problem etc. etc.) — it didn't get funded. Strong-link thinking!
And by doing this, we leave many researchers and projects out of the funding landscape. I would argue that science is a weak-link game — we may think that science is driven by the few superstars, but actually they are supported by a host, swarm, flock, menagerie(?) of other researchers and intellectuals. We also have to admit that scientific discoveries often involve luck, sometimes a lot of luck, and more often than we'd care to really admit. Providing mega-funding to a few scientists reduces the number of scientists that can get lucky.
So where should we be putting our research money? I think we should be spreading it thin, giving it to more scientists (who may have lower impact factors or whichever other bizarre metric you wish to measure scientists by), and try to get as many researchers in the game with their passion, their scientific views, and their luck, to make new notable discoveries. Get these researchers off the bench and into the game, even if they don't have best, fanciest, most-state-of-the-art equipment, their ingenuity will find a way. (A recent example from my own experiences — I want to do some work using camera traps to study pollinators. If I had a huge project grant, I would have bought camera traps that are four to five times the price of a standard trap. I don't have much money for this project. I figured out that buying a pair of reading glasses at my local chemist, popping out the lenses and sticking them onto a normal camera trap works just fine. I can even see ants! I found a way to do something for less, but I needed some research money for the project).
We need to stop thinking of science funding in terms of big projects or superstars — i.e. that science is a strong-link game. We need to find a way to ensure that as many scientists are active as possible. Let us not get misled by the glamour of strong-link thinking.
"And that’s the problem. Superstars are glamorous, Nobel Prize winners are glamorous. Regional universities in rural South Jersey and solid, capable midfielders [or scientists] are not." Malcom Gladwell
Update: A colleague from another institution read this and said he shared this sentiment: he's been arguing that SARCHI positions probably cost the National Research Foundation R5 million per chair — and that there is no way that a single person could out-publish 25 researchers with R200,000 per year. If single researchers get lots of money, there may also be the tendency to play "Godfather" science, as my colleague puts it, as they get their names on papers by sharing their funding with lesser mortals. When these arguments get raised with the upper levels of NRF management, then the retort is that we need superstars for exposure of the rest of National System of Innovation. That's strong-link thinking right there. It's the same reasoning as to why football club owners won't give up their soccer superstars and spend the money on improving the quality of the weaker links in the team — they'll lose out on the bragging rights (this point is made by Malcom Gladwell in his podcast).