Research Syndicates

post by whpearson · 2017-11-01T18:54:11.199Z · score: 18 (6 votes) · LW · GW · 12 comments

Let us assume we want to encourage people following high risk long term research paths. How might you do this without also just getting people sucking up the energy and not producing good research.

One possibility I've been musing about is research syndicates. This idea is that it might be a good idea for groups of disparate researchers to band together and form a syndicate. The syndicate main purpose would be a form of income sharing, any income going to one member (from a grant or other income) a portion would be shared with the rest. Lets say 75% to the group that got the income and 25% being split between the rest.

Why might this work

1) It helps young researchers get some income to get going with a promise that they will pay back to the syndicate if their research pans out.

2) There would be incentives to mentor the other researchers

3) Being part of a research syndicate would be a form of social proof, so they are to be looked on more seriously.

4) People being added to the syndicate is a costly signal on behalf of the syndicate members.

5) Spreads risk between research teams

6) Technical specialists are more likely to be able to recognise interesting researchers.

There would be a need to have exit clauses worked out. Probably being pretty costly to the people that want to exit or make someone else exit.

Anyone come across something like this being tried out? I think the activation energy for this is probably the legal work necessary.

12 comments

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comment by sarahconstantin · 2017-11-02T19:33:06.445Z · score: 18 (5 votes) · LW · GW

A major reason why researchers may want to band together outside a university is to share fixed costs, particularly technological ones.

Academic code is famously bad, because it is not written by professional software engineers, but grad students and postdocs whose primary job is publishing papers. A lot of research fields (biology is the one I'm most familiar with) can see large potential gains from high-quality software engineering that aren't easily captured in universities because it's hard for an individual professor to get an engineer on his grant.

The Broad Institute has done a lot of this already -- they have a large team of engineers in addition to their research scientists, and so they can build a lot of shared infrastructure for computational biology projects. In my opinion this is very successful. When you see a large, well-maintained biological database available to the public, there's a good chance it came from the Broad.

There are other shareable fixed costs associated with R&D, if you're doing translational research. If you want to spin out actual drug candidates from drug development research, for instance, it can help to have business development, legal, and regulatory staff on retainer for the use of any scientist who needs their services. Universities aren't always good at this, and take a hefty cut of the profits from any IP. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has this as a model -- they want to enable translational research by partnering with biologists and having experienced people to help them with the tech stuff and the business stuff.

Why would a top researcher want to join an org like this? For the same reason that Geoffrey Hinton would go to Google -- big resources (such as huge amounts of computational power) that he can't get at a university. The "syndicate" format might be attractive to people who want university-style autonomy (which you can't usually get in industry) while still having access to business-style resources. Though there's probably an inherent tradeoff between "the scientists run the org without being micromanaged" and "the org continues to bring in enough money to provide great common resources."

comment by whpearson · 2017-11-02T23:00:11.117Z · score: 8 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks for the pointer to the Broad Institute, it does look like an interesting model.

Though there's probably an inherent tradeoff between "the scientists run the org without being micromanaged" and "the org continues to bring in enough money to provide great common resources."

I think it would need agreements between people so that a certain percentage of time was spent on sure fire things and could be somewhat managed, but give people enough time to work on the risky/interesting things. I'm interested in what Benquo learns from the communties he is is interested in, I hope there are lessons for this kind of endeavour.

comment by ChristianKl · 2017-11-02T13:33:04.902Z · score: 7 (2 votes) · LW · GW

The usual way you call an instiution of where researchers work together is an research institute or on a bigger scale an university.

In the west academic researchers are not payed by the outcome of their research. Grants work differently. I don't see how what you are proposing would work inside our system.

comment by sarahconstantin · 2017-11-02T19:41:38.144Z · score: 8 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Grants-by-outcome are rare today, but not unknown. Part of what made Mary Lasker's cancer philanthropy so effective was that she insisted cancer researchers be paid based on outcome, not grant application.

Prizes, outcome-based grants, and bringing IP to market are all possible, and I think have advantages relative to grants.

I think a research syndicate would work best in collaboration with a highly outcome-oriented donor who's interested in "hits-based giving" (in OPP's words) but for science. These people exist -- any wealthy donor who's interested in curing a disease is going to want to fund science the same way he invests in companies.

comment by ChristianKl · 2017-12-16T14:06:06.491Z · score: 4 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I think that a funder who wants to fund a research syndicate to go after an important goal wants researchers who work together instead of disparate researchers.

comment by whpearson · 2017-11-02T13:48:15.625Z · score: 4 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I think implicit in my thinking is wondering about different models than our current one. For example could something like kickstarter for research work. Or building a community like effective altruism but for more uncertain prospects, where you can't know the tractibility of an intervention without having gotten a significant way into researching something.

How might these things work?

Effective Altruism and the rationalist community are generally reliant on the experimental work that is fundable by the current system. If we were to think about how to enable/incentivise different experimental work, what would that look like?

comment by ChristianKl · 2017-11-02T14:16:36.182Z · score: 3 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think that a community that wants to encourage uncertain prospects wants to fund researchers based on the results of their research in a way that they can share the money with other people in your "research syndicate" setup.

comment by whpearson · 2017-11-02T14:47:43.822Z · score: 4 (1 votes) · LW · GW

It is just supposed to be a mechanism to de-risk an inherently risky endeavour by aggregating a bunch of them together (like a decentralised VC fund). And to make the research landscape a little less competitive so trust can be built between disparate groups.

If those aren't things the community would want then fair enough, or if they don't want it in this package, I'm all ears for an alternative.

comment by korin43 · 2017-11-02T05:40:23.277Z · score: 6 (2 votes) · LW · GW

You explain why new researchers would want to join, but why would top researchers want to? It seems like they lose money and time in exchange for that warm feeling you get when helping people. Would that be enough?

In terms of legality, worker owned corporations exist, but I suspect it would be hard convincing people to give unrestricted funding to the corporation (I think most government grants are fairly specific about what you can spent the money on?).

My (outsider) perspective of the field is that private funding for academic style research is uncommon, and generally involves the funder directly hiring the researchers, which seems to have some things in common with what you're saying (although since the researchers typically doesn't own any portions of the organization, they have presumably have fewer incentives to mentor other people).

If non academic research counts (researching something so you can build a product), then a think something similar to what you're proposing happens in some parts of the startup scene. For example, a group of people get together with an idea for a new product, start a company, research how to create/improve the product. Once the company transitions from solving scientific/technical problems to solving organizational problems, the founders leave and join or found new startups. The main difference here is that it's a short term cycle instead of a long term commitment, but that doesn't seem to stop people for providing mentoring.

comment by whpearson · 2017-11-02T13:40:37.824Z · score: 4 (1 votes) · LW · GW
You explain why new researchers would want to join, but why would top researchers want to? It seems like they lose money and time in exchange for that warm feeling you get when helping people. Would that be enough?

I think top researchers would only join (apart from the fuzzies) if they wanted to do something risky, like an AI person wanting to do something new that was not Deep Learning. There would be questions about whether they could build a community or find someone to publish what they were doing, but that if they succeeded they might get lots of funding down the line. But they would be getting funding from the other members of the syndicate as they were trying to work this out.

I think you are right about the government grants which might be a significant blocker.

comment by ryan_b · 2017-11-09T20:35:06.354Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Roger M. Stein of MIT gave a TED talk on how to distribute the risk of things like pharmaceutical research. This emphasized funding research and distributing risk from the products of the research, but would probably be a useful method for a syndicate to generate funds.

  • The talk is called "A Bold New Way to Fund Drug Research", which I cannot link effectively because they made the poor choice of using underscores everywhere which markdown hijacks.

  • His website is here: http://www.rogermstein.com/#header

I find the idea of treating things as financial assets very interesting, because you can split risk among multiple types of assets because they all have payoff functions. This is similar to how you can multiply probability functions together from all of the evidence.