Sharing research papers on the web is not very controversial because sharing benefits everyone (other than a few increasingly irrelevant special interests). Sharing research proposals is a thornier proposition: since the work remains to be done, it exposes researchers to scooping. However, I would argue that scooping is not really very likely, and anyone whose ideas are good enough to steal is probably pretty successful anyway. In fact, if someone takes my idea and runs with it, then the work will get done without me having to lift a finger and I’ll be able to work on something else. Also, of course, a great research project (like a great product) is never really about the idea — it’s much more about great execution.
A grant proposal that I submit should be funded when the proposed work is important and when I’m the best person in the world to do it. This happens to correspond to the case where it’s unlikely for someone to successfully steal my idea. If I’m not the best person to do the work, then the proposal shouldn’t be funded and (assuming the idea is any good) someone else should work on it.
So far I’ve tried to argue that opening up research proposals has few drawbacks. But what are the advantages?
- Proposers will get more and earlier feedback on their ideas.
- Since researchers will be able to find out earlier what other people are working on, there will be more opportunities (and hopefully incentives) to collaborate.
- Researchers will put stakes in the ground earlier than they otherwise would. I love this — duplicated effort is a depressing waste of time and money.
- Everybody gets to see what researchers are asking for public funding to work on.
The other day I blogged a short proposal. Hopefully I’ll keep doing this, though it’s not clear I’ll always be able to convince my co-PIs that it’s a good idea. Personally, I’d be happy if NSF, DARPA, NIH, etc. would openly post every proposal they receive, as soon as they receive it. And maybe, just maybe, a few people will decide not to submit proposals that aren’t really ready for submission, lowering the massive workloads faced by program officers.