I have to admit, anytime someone says that we need to start funding people not projects, my suspicion meter just about craps itself. As with all "solutions to the status quo" it always turns out that the person espousing this view sees themselves as a major beneficiary of this system. The will cite HHMI is a shining example of success, of course, and conveniently forget that those HHMI peeps had to become independent before they were picked up. I may be mistaken, but I don't see a lot of Assistant Profs at the HHMI table.
I am all in favor of figuring out ways to fund good science and change the fact that I spent most of my time chasing money. ALL for it. But it's a damn waste of time to just toss out quarter-baked ideas without stopping for half a second to flex the mental muscle and see what the logical conclusion is. Why does HHMI work? Well, it identifies promising scientists and gives them the resources to get shit done. Cool! Why doesn't HHMI fund the scientific enterprise in the US? Well, for one, that's not their mission and for another, they don't have the money. And oddly, neither does NIH if it wanted to go to this model.
It's simple math. If the goal is to provide long-term stable funding so that certain people can be as creative as they like, the cost is going to be large in terms of the science that doesn't get done. Let's just take the NHLBI data that DrugMonkey is all wrought up about as an illustration of a point. These data show pretty convincingly that the science happening at the 1%ile is just as impactful as the science that gets scored at the 35%ile. Unfortunately we don't have data beyond that point, but one could hazard a guess that a tailing off doesn't happen right after the 35%ile. Let's just suppose for a second that the drop off is somewhere in the neighborhood of the 50%ile.
Current funding ranges at NIH are pretty much at the 15%ile and below at the moment. The expanse between 15 and 50 is, well, massive. So let's say we had enough NIH funds to keep the top 20% (however one would measure that) of labs comfortable. What happens to all that science that would have had the same impact but isn't happening in the right labs?
Now I realize there's no perfect correlation between the Proposal %ile and number of labs, but you get the idea. We would be forced to either give a much larger number of labs much less money or effectively cut off an enormous amount of productive impactful work. Indeed, if you're at a top institution and all you care about is your own situation, it's NBD, right? And if you're too dumb to figure out how to make it work, well then you're probably not the type of scientist that should be funded anyhow.