I thought this might be of interest particularly in light of the
recent conversations
here about academics vs wikipedians. - Joe


Since access to research funding is difficult, particularly for young
researchers, we consider a change in approach: "We are the funding
opportunity!" I'll develop this idea further in the comments that
follow.  This is an "open letter" to circulate to research mailing
lists which I hope will bring in new interest in the Free Technology

Keywords: research funding, postgraduate training

A critique of the way research is funded

Considering the historical technologies for doing science, it makes
sense that public funding for research is administered via a
competitive, hierarchical model. Science is too big for everyone to
get together in one room and discuss.  However, contemporary
communication technologies and open practices seem to promise
something different: a sustained public conversation about research.
The new way of doing things would "redeem" the intellectual capital
currently lost in rejected research proposals, and would provide
postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers with additional learning
opportunities through a system of peer support.

JISC recently ran an experiment moving in this direction (the "JISC
Elevator"), but the actual incentive structure ended up being similar
to other grant funding schemes, with 6 of 26 proposals funded
(http://www.jisc.ac.uk/blog/crowd/). It strikes me that if we saw the
same numbers in a classroom setting (6 pass, 20 fail), we would find
that pretty appalling. Of course, people have the opportunity to
re-apply with changes in response to another call, but the overheads
in that approach are quite high. What if instead of a winners-take-all
competitive model, we took a more collaborative and learning-oriented
approach to funding research, with "applicants" working together, in
consultation with funders -- until their ideas were ready? In the end,
it's not so much about increasing the acceptance rate, but increasing
the throughput of good ideas! Open peer review couldn't "save" the
most flawed proposals; nevertheless, it could help expose and
understand the flaws -- allowing contributors to learn from their
mistakes and move on.

With such an approach, funding for "research and postgraduate
training" would be fruitfully combined. This modest proposal hinges on
one simple point: transparency. Much as the taxpayer "should" have
access to research results they pay for (cf. the recent of appointment
of Jimmy Wales as a UK government advisor) and scientists "should"
have access to the journals that they publish in (cf. Winston Hide's
recent resignation as editor of Genomics), so to do we as
citizen-scientists have a moral imperative to be transparent about how
research funding is allocated, and how research is done. Not just
transparent: positively pastoral.

The Free Technology Guild: a candidate solution

Suppose someone needs to put together a team of four persons: a
programmer, a statistician, an anthropologist, and a small-scale
capitalist. This team would have the project to create a new social
media tool over the course of 3 months; the plan is to make money
through a subscription model. As an open online community for work on
technology projects, the Free Technology Guild
could help:

* by helping the project designer specify the input/output
requirements for the project;

* by helping the right people for the job find and join the project;

* by providing peer support and mentoring to participants throughout
the duration of the project.

Because everything is developed in the open (code, models, ethnography),
everyone wins, including downstream users, who can replicate the same
approach with any suitable changes "on demand". (And, in case things go
badly, those results can be shared too -- the broader community can help
everyone involved learn from these experiences in a constructive fashion.)

What is needed now

We are currently building the FTG on a volunteer basis, but within the
year we hope to set up a service marketplace where we and others can
contribute and charge for services related to free/open technology,
science, and software. Although we have criticised the current mode of
research funding as inefficient, we would be enthusiastic about
contributing to grant proposals that would support our work to build a
different kind of system.  But without waiting for funding to arrive,
we are actively recruiting volunteers to form the foundation of the
Free Technology Guild. We seek technologists, researchers,
organizational strategists, business-persons -- and
students/interns/apprentices in these fields and others. Together, we
can bootstrap a new way to do research.

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