The idea to write about project-based funding schemes for this blog piece originated from the recent French elections (yes there’s actually a link there). With these elections came a new government, with a new Minister of State for Higher Education and Universities. Not long after her appointment, the new minister stated that (French) public research should be an economically profitable investment and that project-based funding schemes should be generalised. Which led me to wonder whether such a funding scheme was actually adequate and “profitable” for research. Over the past of decades, European public research became increasingly concerned with performance objectives and relevance. More and more, the requirement of relevance for public research is becoming synonymous with its direct contribution to economic competitiveness and innovation. In response to this requirement for economic relevance, many Western governments have introduced specific policies to stimulate “scientific excellence”; and the funding of public research in the form of project-based grants and contracts gradually developed in many countries. The rise in project funding shifted control of research funds towards funding agencies that distribute these funds across individuals/groups; as opposed to a steady yearly research fund allocation (as it used to be the case). These funding schemes are grounded in the belief that differentiating resource allocations will produce better performance of the science system; but they generate financial capacity for a select number of individuals and research groups at the receiving end and increase the unequal distribution of funding in the science system. Governments hope that increasing concentration among researchers that perform ‘best’ will increase effectiveness, decrease low-quality research, and yield more and better outcomes for the science system.
Yet, evidence shows that the rise of project-based funding doesn’t necessarily have the desired effects, and actually has multiple and various detrimental effects. Such funding scheme tends to amplify the Matthew effect and leads to stronger concentration of funding. This concentration does not seem to contribute to a better scientific performance in terms of publications numbers or citations. A meta-analysis suggests that concentration of funding does not contribute to higher productivity or citation impact, and it has been shown that the most funded researchers do not stand out in terms of output and scientific impact. Both in terms of the quantity of papers produced and of their scientific impact, the concentration of research funding to ‘elite’ researchers generally produce diminishing marginal returns. Some Nobel prize laureates actually argued that most of their research that got them where they were had not been funded on project-base funding.
Amongst other effects produced by funding through competitive proposals, we see a change in the social structure of the labs, as well as a loss of strategic capacity for the labs, the decline of organisational solidarity, and the bureaucratisation of the work of researchers. Indeed, the rise of project funding has resulted in a new composition of this research group around the group leader, who is PI of many of the external projects and supervisor of most PhD-students. Laboratory management’s ability to influence the research conducted by their teams is reduced as each group work on specific projects driven by the funding schemes. For all researchers it has increased time spent on grant proposal writing and an administrative burden to provide formal evaluations. The rise of project funding also leads to increasing short-term employment, hypercompetition, as well as increasing anxiety and career uncertainty (especially for early career researchers). Indeed, it increased the number of temporary positions as well as the length of the temporary career phase. In a context in which public expenditure is constrained, project-based funding tends to benefit research more than teaching and training. Finally, such funding scheme also affects publication strategies. Researchers often think publication strategies are critical for the viability of the group and for a future career in academia, and for future success in getting funding. This can change a bit the way science is thought of and framed, as we tend to consider less the research question per se but rather the papers that could result from it.
Although one cannot deny some positive potential aspects (dynamism, encouragement of creativity, transparency) of project-based funding, evidence clearly shows some drastic detrimental effects that affect the science system as a whole. So, the question is, once we have established this, where do we go from there, what kind of solutions are there? I’m not sure I have a definite answer to this question. I have to say that the point of this blog piece was more to raise the question and maybe trigger discussion. However, different options could co-exist, with for instance some part of the budgets that could be set aside for specific schemes. Funding agencies could decrease the budget for excellence funding arrangements, allocating part of the budget to other funding programs or as block funding.
Fund people not projects John P. A. Ioannidis Nature volume 477, pages529–531 (2011)
Franssen, T. & De Rijcke, S. (2019) “The rise of project funding and its effects on the social structure of academia”. In: Cannizzo, F & Osbaldiston, N. (Eds) The social structures of global academia. London: Routledge
Project-Based Funding: What Are the Effects on the Work of Researchers? Matthieu Hubert, Séverine Louvel In Mouvements Volume 71, Issue 3, 2012, pages 13 to 24
Concentration of research funding leads to decreasing – P Mongeon · 2016
Funding for few, anticipation among all: Effects of excellence funding on academic research groups Wout Scholten, Thomas P Franssen, Leonie van Drooge, Sarah de Rijcke, Laurens K Hessels Science and Public Policy, Volume 48, Issue 2, April 2021, Pages 265–275,
Concentration or dispersal of research funding? K Aagaard, A Kladakis, MW Nielsen – Quantitative Science Studies, 2020