1. Scientific impact is positively, but only weakly, correlated to funding.
2. On average, impact was a decelerating function of funding.
Evidence Rating Level: 3 (Fair)
Study Rundown: Publicly-funded research granting councils can take one of two strategies –spread a given pool of money diffusely, through small grants to many researchers or grant larger sums of money to a few select researchers. Historically, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), which funds most Canadian university scientists, has taken the former approach while the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) takes the latter. This study aimed to assess which strategy yields more “bang for the buck” – to assess how scientific impact varies with individual researchers’ grant sizes. It found that impact was generally a decelerating function of funding. Impact is likely maximized by granting small sums of money to more researchers, as additional funding beyond a relatively low threshold does not seem to promote more research articles nor more highly-cited articles. The authors argue further that this “many small” approach has additional benefits over the “few big” approach, including its lower risk, the value of keeping more scientists and students involved in research, and its promotion of the research-teaching interface at universities. This study was conducted in Canada, and it is unclear how the various institutional and cultural differences here in the US may influence these findings. However, these results do suggest that government agencies should at the very least consider their goals – to reward excellence among elite researchers or to maximize scientific impact – and be explicit and purposeful about these goals when making funding decisions.
In-Depth [retrospective observational study]: aimed to determine whether it is more effective for public funding agencies to give large grants to a few elite researchers, or small grants to many researchers. Specifically, the study attempted to answer the question: how does scientific impact vary with individual researchers’ grant sizes?
Scientific impact was quantified by four indices measured across a four-year period: numbers of articles published, numbers of citations to those articles, the most cited article, and the number of highly cited articles. These indices were then compared to the amount of NSERC funding received. Based on statistical analyses on log-transformed variables of impact measures, the study found that individual researchers’ impact increased with NSERC funding, across all measures of impact investigated. However, the impact-funding relationships are weak, accounting for less than 28% of among-researcher variation in impact. Additionally, this study found that the relationship between funding and high-impact publications is highly variable, with two small grants yielding 20% more high-impact articles than one large grant. There was no evidence that increased funding levels led to increased scientific impact, when comparing researchers’ output across years with lower versus higher funding levels.
By Elizabeth Kersten and Andrew Bishara
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