More basic grants provide the best research

Published Apr 11, 2018

Seeking funding through competition or basic funding – which system leads to the best research? A study by KTH Royal Institute of Technology turns misconceptions upside down.

The majority, close to 60 per cent, of research funding in Sweden is sought in competitions between researchers at various universities and higher education institutes. If instead a larger part of the money went directly to the institutions through basic grants, it would considerably increase the chance of achieving excellent research results, according to Ulf Sandström, research policy expert, who investigated which funding system gives the best value for money.

The study investigates 18 national research systems. By comparing differences in funding, resource allocation and the way in which the institutions are managed, he has tried to identify which factors affect effectiveness – how much research do you get for the money invested?

The answer is at odds with common perceptions, says Ulf Sandström, researcher at the School of Industrial Engineering and Management (ITM).

“The prevailing ideology that increased competition leads to researchers standing out and performing better is not supported by our study. On the contrary, we can show that systems with a high proportion of basic funding lead to an increase in quality, where research has a greater impact.”

Don’t go all out

The study has looked at how the inflow of money in different national systems affects the production of highly cited research publications. Countries with a high proportion of basic funding can get a significantly better exchange, in some cases up to 20 per cent more highly cited articles, than those with a high proportion of competition-based research funding.

One explanation for the difference could, according to Ulf Sandström, be that researchers seeking funds in competitions primarily opt for safe cards, i.e. projects in popular, well-established areas with research results that do not stand out from the crowd.

“Many researchers devote themselves to what is mainstream and feasible. They don’t dare to go all out and try out unusual hypotheses because of the risk of losing the chance of awarded funding,” says Ulf Sandström.

Factors other than the funding model are also at play. According to the study, effective research systems are characterised by a well-developed evaluation culture, where researchers are encouraged to reach out with their results.

“There should be a high awareness of the value of publications, where and how you can best publish and also incentives that can push the researchers in the right direction,” says Ulf Sandström.

Universities ruled from the top

The management of higher education institutions is a complex but important issue in this context. Universities ruled from the top are not a favourable environment for the efficient use of research funds. The more power that is concentrated in the university management, the worse the exchange on invested funding, according to the study.

“It’s to do with the workplace culture and working atmosphere. If you feel controlled by management and find that trust in researchers is becoming less and less, your motivation and creativity are affected. Perhaps you’re also not able to participate in the projects you’re most interested in.”

Sweden is one of the countries which, according to the study, miss out on high-quality research due to inefficient use of resources. Ulf Sandström’s advice to the decision-makers: increase the amount of basic funding.

“Over time it’ll speed things up, it’s unequivocal. Let’s do a thought experiment: with an optimal system, we might get closer to 20 per cent more of the investments in research funding,” he says.

Text: Christer Gummeson

Facts: The study is based, among other things, on R&D costs according to OECD statistics and data on basic funding from each country from 2000–2009. The publication statistics refer to the years 2002–2011. The study, “Funding, evaluation, and the performance of national research systems” is published in the Journal of Informetrics.

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