What makes an exploratory project good?
Exploratory inquiry has difficulty attracting research funding because funding agencies have little sense of how to detect good science in exploratory contexts. This is principally due to the relatively reduced directive role of specific scientific theories in guiding exploratory research, a fact that can be appreciated on its own terms as well as in comparison with the funding agency preference for hypothesis testing, which is strongly theory-driven.
In this paper I describe the several substantive ways in which theory guides hypothesis testing and explain how, in those capacities, theory serves as a rich source of information regarding the scientific merit of a hypothesis-driven research program. I go on to characterize exploratory inquiry as distinctively theory-lite, a fact which explains the difficulty that proposal referees have in making principled disctinctions between good and bad exploratory projects. But exploratory projects are not conducted arbitrarily. Researchers make principled decisions about what systems to investigate and how to go about that investigation. I argue that we need to think hard, much harder than we have in recent history, about how to articulate the principles governing these decisions in a way that makes it easier for proposal referees to form reliable judgments regarding their merit.