"What I cannot create, I do not understand." – R. Feynman
Jonas Kubilius

A researcher is a beggar

While an outsider might imagine academia as being solely concerned with the eternal pursuit of Knowledge, in practice the head of a lab might be more concerned with raising enough funds to sustain the lab. Money is at the core of all operations. More money leads to more hires, and more hires produce more papers at more prestigious venues that drive more money and enable more ambitious research goals.

Which puts a researcher at a very uncomfortable position--that of a beggar. With nothing to sell––only an ever-deeper pile of papers––there is no way to "earn" funding, leaving a researcher only with the hope for alms from those above her.

The first round of judges are those who divide the funding pie: the funding agencies. A researcher is thus constantly busy proving her case: writing grants, publishing, networking, securing tenures at top universities. As much as I'd like it to be different, I must admit that this is probably fair. The value of research is by no means obvious and one needs to advocate for its share among all the other human activities.

However, even those who master this fine game stand powerless in front of the second round of judges: those who actually allocate money to funding agencies. As the number of researchers is increasing, is it pretty optimistic to expect the budgets to rise accordingly. In practice, funding only seems to become more scarce and other than mass protests, there are few strings of influence for researchers to pull. So you won't show up at work if we cut your funding? Won't continue flooding us with your research insights? Good--we'll cut on the amount of wastepaper, my friend. Because beggars can't be choosers.

It's kinda funny how this bunch of amazingly clever people confine themselves to such a helpless situation. Seriously, there is no other way to fund your pursuits than begging for alms? I guess people are too busy and too immersed in perfecting the game-playing skills within the academic bubble to consider alternatives.

So let me describe one. In a recent long-form on Elon Musk's newest company, Neuralink, Tim Urban described a rather curious approach that Elon Musk seems to use in his business ventures. In order to achieve his ambitious goals that no one man possibly could, Musk starts by coming up with a sustainable business model that is related to that goal and whose profits could fund the initial research phase crucial for advancing towards that goal. At some point this research crosses some threshold that ignites other companies jump the ship and work on the problem at a large scale, thus solving it fast.

Let's borrow the idea of funding research via a business:

  1. Define your goal
  2. Observe your current situation: knowledge and resources that you already have
  3. Come up with a sustainable business model that would utilize your strengths (hopefully in conjunction to achieving your goal, but not necessarily)
  4. Use the funds from your business to fund your research

Not much would change here from the current approach. Top PIs are already great at managing and selling. Now, instead of spending their time trying to impress donors, researchers would spend the same amount of time running their business. As a bonus, a researcher might be not only producing shiny papers at the end of the day, but also actual things that may even be directly related to their research. Ironically, this would look great on a CV for funding agencies that are constantly asking for collaborations with industry and science outreach, potentially actually increasing the chances to secure those good old grants as well.

Universities could also support this approach by giving a researcher a choice to work part-time in one of the university-owned companies whose profits would be granted to the researcher. With so many outstanding people working at universities, I'm sure great companies could be formed by the their brightest minds. In fact, this is probably already the case with some researchers founding companies, but the approach could be centralized and supported much more at universities.

While this is clearly not for everybody, I don't see why it would any worse or less fun than writing and rewriting grants, justifying spending, serving various committees, gaining influence and otherwise complying to the conventional game of academia.