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Better Odds?

Researchers spend more and more time chasing after grants that are harder and harder to come by, which has led, Vox says, to a proposal to replace the current peer-review system with a lottery program.

It adds that top researchers currently spend about half their time writing grants. A 2015 study in PLOS One of astronomers and psychologists found that the average grant proposal required 116 hours of principal investigators' time and 55 hours of chief investigators' time — and that the time spent on a proposal was not correlated with whether or not it was funded. At the same time, other researchers reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last year that peer reviewers rarely agree on how they rate grant applications. Additionally, federal agencies in the US like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation are approving fewer grant applications, Vox adds, noting that this has led to calls to overhaul the system.

The idea for lottery-based research funding was first proffered by Ferric Fang and Arturo Casadevall in mBio in 2016. There, they argued that a lottery system, after a round of peer review, could more fairly allocate funds and avoid problems plaguing the current system, including bias and a lack of diversity.

This, Vox notes, is a "fringe" proposal to address the grant-funding issue. "What's striking is that the current system is so fundamentally broken that a lottery could conceivably be an improvement," it says. "That ought to spur us to start debating big changes."

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