Canadian biomedical science is outstanding…but also redundant?

Back when I was a grad student (back when we could study the dinosaurs in the field, not as fossils!) I became aware of a wry observation. The funding agencies, it was said, had two stock answers to funding requests:

  • If the research is unique and no-one else is doing it, then the research must not be worth doing so no funding; and
  • If the research is being done by others then there is no use to doing redundant work, so no funding

This article suggests that the referees on funding proposals lean more to the former point-of-view than the latter.

Canadians do not preferentially carry out science at the frontier. The publication pattern of Canadian science is eerily similar to that of the world’s science (and indeed to that of any individual country). We’re part of the pack. Why does this happen? It’s likely because science is global but research funding is parochial. Part of the power of globalization is that all scientists in the world have access to the same scientific literature. But consequently, many scientists have very similar ideas on what to do next. And each can seek funding for these experiments from their national (or provincial) governments. And because there are smart scientists everywhere, they will get funding. And it follows that the same idea can get funded dozens or more different times. And while this encourages healthy competition as well as provides checks and balances to ensure that scientific discoveries can be replicated, it also encourages massive, and likely wasteful, duplication of effort.