Its a question put out there by Times Correspondent Hannah Devlin on Twitter. I think the answer is a resounding, projects, projects can I say it again projects.
Idealistically it is certainly true you should fund the best people: I think it is pretty safe to say when most of us are hiring someone they will at least try to pick the best person for the job (in the absence of corruption but well that is another matter).
In many ways, the safe bet by the governments/funding bodies is to fund ‘people’ instead of projects – and if you pick those people carefully you are pretty certain they will deliver; they will publish high impact papers etc. In the short-term what is not to love?
But I think in asking these question we have to think of what it means to be ‘successful’. As Jack Stilgoe pointed out on his very nice post about this question the funding people policy is a policy supported by many who are big scientists who define “scientific excellence, as measured by scientists, for scientists.” In the short-term maybe this means you are an FRS and have like I don’t know 30 Nature papers, but time will tell if this is a long-lasting success or just a branch of science that runs into the dust.
Jean-Baptiste Lamarck was a very successful zoologist in his day and gave us a complete classification of invertebrate zoology as well as basically coining the term biology (in the professional sense). However Lamark also believed in what is now called ‘Lamarkism’ – a theory that organisms can pass down acquired traits to thier off-spring – such as the Blacksmith’s arm, or the giraffe’s neck – which doesn’t really work any more, we know this theory pretty much isn’t true. But it was a good theory at the time the only reason we know it isn’t in hindsight is that new ideas (like Darwin) came along out of nowhere and made more sense.
In the long term only funding people disconnected from projects is a bad idea. First of all the people that would like get funded by this mechanism (if we moved entirely to that) probably already get money anyway. And to get more money, as it stands, even the great and the good have to write new grants with a new ideas and yes this is annoying to have to do every few years, but it still means your idea is vetted in some fashion.
Secondly,funding only the elite would cut your science base to shreds, where would the new people come from? Where would the new ideas come from? Where would the diversity be?
I say this because some people are very specialized while others are not, if you are specialized in one technique, one system – while you may do fabulous ground-breaking research, you may not be able to produce a future generation of scientists by which to stimulate new ideas. And your ground-breaking research may actually be the modern equivalent of Lamarkism.