When in doubt, randomize. The Case for Lotteries in Research Funding

The time-honored mechanism of allocating funds based on ranking of proposals by scientific peer review is no longer effective. Over the past 70 years the research environment has dramatically changed. An increasing number of researchers, the emergence of new research fields and interdisciplinary research have nearly collapsed the system. Review panels cannot accurately stratify proposals to identify the most meritorious ones. Bias has a major influence on funding decisions, and the impact of reviewer bias is magnified by low funding paylines.

Among the multiple possibilities that have been proposed to overcome its limitations, one apparently surprising is a lottery. Using randomization to decide between grant applications is a relatively new method, not yet part of mainstream practice, and there is sitll limited research on the topic. However, a system of random assignment in which peer review is used to identify the most meritorious proposals might solve many of current limitations and would have several advantages.

Some international funding agencies are already incorporating randomization systems for some of their programs, such as the Volkswagen Foundation in Germany, the Austrian Science Fund, the New Zealand Health Research Council, the Swiss National Science Foundation and, most recently, the British Academy.

The Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) has arguably gone the furthest: it decided in late 2021 to use randomization in all tiebreaker cases across its entire grant portfolio of around 880 million Swiss francs (US$910 million).

Randomization is a well established strategy to solve some complex problems. The lottery is in the business of selling people hope. The role of state as promoter of lotteries is more debatable, but in Spain we know a lot about it. And by the way, it seems to be the one chosen by nature.

Maybe there is no escape. When in doubt, randomize


Feature Image: El Gordo (The Fat One), Spanish Christmas Lottery

One comment

  1. I like your post. Interesting and could be applicable, but not a free for all solution. As in the case of a lottery, it is necessary at least to buy a ticket, otherwise the whole thing is uncontrollable. In the case of R&D projects, at least you should show you know what the others are doing and be able to explain what you intend to do.

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