Peer-to-Peer

Paying taxes is not a qualification for assessing research programmes

Massimo Pinto has discovered an unusual qualification for being a peer-reviewer: paying your taxes. Since 2006, Italians have been allowed to donate 0.5 per cent of their taxes to charity in a highly specific way (previously, such donations had to be made to the church or the state). On his Nature Network blog Science in the Bel Paese, Dr Pinto points out that one can elect to donate one’s contribution to specific research institutes. Leaving aside the fact that some of the intended recipients do not yet seem to have received their 2006 or 2007 contributions, specifying an individual project could have the effect of bypassing the peer-review system, particularly in Italy, where science funding levels are low. Dr Pinto writes that taxpayers have three choices:

—donate to funding agencies. It happens in many countries of the world. As long as the agency is committed to assign that money in a transparent manner, including, possibly, peer review, that should be fine.

—donate to individual institutes. In this way, taxpayers may be exercising a little peer-review power. Less troublesome, perhaps, if the institute acts, internally, as the agency above. Still, it is not obvious why institute A should be so much better than institute B. Maybe the cleverest scientist, with the best idea right now, is in institute B.

—donate to a specific project. Here the taxpayers are exercising bolder peer-review powers, and that raises a red flag

As some institutes have taken to advertising the importance of their research and the difference one’s money would make to humanity (no details provided in the advertisements), there is definitely scope for a loophole or two to be closed. As Dr Pinto puts it, “The particular advert that irritated me was a dialogue between two young citizens; one was asking whether the researcher in XYZ University were really going to deliver results, and the other one replied, reassuringly, that they were among the very best in Europe. Donating to them was a guarantee of success.”

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