Mavericks and Lotteries

Published on 03 December 2018


  1. A novel analytic synthesis of arguments that support random allocation as an alternative to grant peer review
  2. Review of policy implementations of science funding that formally include a random selection element.
  3. A novel comparison of these policies with each other and with the policy-relevant characteristics of the arguments in the literature.


In 2013 the Health Research Council of New Zealand began a stream of funding entitled ‘Explorer Grants’, and in 2017 changes were introduced to the funding mechanisms of the Volkswagen Foundation ‘Experiment!’ and the New Zealand Science for Technological Innovation challenge ‘Seed Projects’. All three funding streams aim at encouraging novel scientific ideas, and all now employ random selection by lottery as part of the grant selection process. The idea of funding science by lottery emerged independently in several corners of academia, including in philosophy of science. This paper reviews the conceptual and institutional landscape in which this policy proposal emerged, how different academic fields presented and supported arguments for the proposal, and how these have been reflected (or not) in actual policy. The paper presents an analytical synthesis of the arguments presented to date, notes how they support each other and shape policy recommendations in various ways, and where competing arguments highlight the need for further analysis or more data. In addition, it provides lessons for how philosophers of science can engage in shaping science policy, and in particular, highlights the importance of mixing complementary expertise: it takes a (conceptually diverse) village to raise (good) policy.

This paper appears in Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science, in the Special Issue Creativity, Conservatism & the Social Epistemology of Science, edited by Dr Adrian Currie. It was presented at the Risk & the Culture of Science workshop in Cambridge.

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