Open Proposals (or: Take My Idea — Please)

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.

7 thoughts on “Open Proposals (or: Take My Idea — Please)”

  1. I’m probably not qualified to comment on this subject, since I’m just a PhD student. I have to say, this is great for all PhD students. If I had seen a proposal like the one posted here several years ago, my proposal and research would have been much easier.

  2. What about intellectual property? If my latest grant application were made public, I’d be unable to patent the results if my hypothesis turns out to be correct.

  3. Peter, I think it would be excellent if publicly funded research could not be patented.

    My views are no doubt colored by the sad state of software patents in the USA.

  4. John,

    I find your ideas absolutely compelling in principle, but I’m balking when I think about actually doing this! I’m not sure if this is a case where I just need to put the principle into practice, but at the risk of narcissism, I’ll ponder why.

    I am definitely always trying to work on problems I personally find interesting or indeed, compelling. Often, those seem to be problems that other people simply aren’t that interested in stealing! Maybe my reluctance is that I don’t want to share slightly idiosyncratic ideas until I have something to back them up. I have started doing this with ideas on my blog ( a bit recently, and there I feel more worried about scooping myself than anyone else scooping me: it’s nicer to roll out a really cool idea when it’s all done and nicely developed, rather than tip my hand when the idea is 1/4 baked.

    I do find your call to openness stirring, and will consider doing this.


  5. Hi John, your proposal is workable on a personal basis but not at the level of funding agencies.

    At that level, it is even old. Some of my colleagues at Rice routinely turned proposals into TRs and published them immediately. For established senior people, it doesn’t make much of a difference. Indeed, they increase their chances of translating their ideas into realities. How about junior people? How about junior people at departments that count the number of dollars when you come up for tenure? Indeed, a senior person who wishes to help his own PhD students may pre-empt their work by posting proposals.

    As much as I agree with you that we would have to go thru fewer half-baked proposals at certain funding agencies, everyone must understand that funding agencies are not (only) pursing the goal of funding important research by people who are well-suited (let’s not say best) for the work. Due to political pressures from senior scientists willing to play politics and by politicians whom we elect to play politics, funding agencies are social-engineering agents. They simply couldn’t afford to publish the proposals they receive and (don’t) fund.

    Is your idea fully baked?

    — Matthias

  6. Hi Matthias, I’ve never had a fully-baked idea that I’m aware of.

    I don’t understand your comment that the funding agencies cannot afford to publish unfunded proposals. What would be the bad outcome? I like to think the research system is robust enough to tolerate minor disruptions like this.

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