Strange IndiaStrange India

An analog clock and a ball of US paper currency balanced on a seesaw weight scale.

The duration and value of a grant are not likely to alter the research strategies of recipients in the United States.Credit: DigitalVision/Getty

Offering professors more money or time isn’t likely to dramatically change how they do their research, a survey of US-based academics has found.

The survey, described in a preprint article posted on arXiv in December1, was completed by 4,175 professors across several disciplines, including the natural sciences, social sciences, engineering, mathematics and humanities.

The study’s authors, Kyle Myers and Wei Yang Tham, both economists at Harvard Business School in Boston, Massachusetts, say the aim was to investigate whether senior scientists would conduct their research differently if they had more money but less time, or vice versa.

The research comes amid interest from some funders in tweaking the amount of time and money awarded to scientists to incentivize them to do more socially valuable work. For instance, in 2017, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Maryland, announced that it had extended its grants from five to seven years, arguing that the extra time would allow researchers to “take more risk and achieve more transformative advances”.

Acknowledging that the most reliable way to test how grant characteristics might affect researchers’ work is to award them actual grants — which was not feasible — Myers and Tham instead presented them with hypothetical scenarios.

The survey respondents were asked what research strategies they would pursue if they were offered a certain sum of grant money for a fixed time period. Both the value and duration were randomly assigned. The hypothetical grants were worth US$100,000 to $2 million and ran between two and ten years.

To capture the changes in strategy, the survey provided the participants with five options that they could take if they successfully obtained the hypothetical grant. These included pursuing riskier projects — for example, those with only a small chance of success – or ones that were unrelated to their current work and increasing the speed or size of their ongoing projects.

The survey revealed that longer grants increased the researchers’ willingness to pursue riskier projects — but this held true only for tenured professors, who can afford to take a gamble because they tend to have long-term job security, an established reputation and access to more resources. The authors note, however, that any change in research strategy that resulted from receiving a longer grant was not substantial.

Non-tenured professors were not swayed towards risk-taking when they received longer grants. This finding suggests that longer grant designs don’t take into account the pressures that come with shorter employment contracts, says Myers. “If you’re a professor who’s on a 1- or 2-year contract, where you have to get renewed every year, then the difference between a 5-year or 10-year grant is not as important as performing in the next year or two,” he says.

Both tenured and non-tenured professors said longer, larger grants would slow down how fast they worked, “which suggests a significant amount of racing in science is in pursuit of resources”, the authors say, adding that this effect was also minor.

Myers and Tham report that the professors were “very unwilling” to reduce the amount of grant funding in exchange for a longer duration. “Money is much more valuable than time,” they conclude. They found that the professors valued a 1% increase in grant money nearly four times more than a 1% increase in grant duration. The study concludes that the researchers didn’t seem a to view the length of a single grant as “an important constraint on their research pursuits given their preferences, incentives and expected access to future funding sources”.

Experimenting with grant structures

Table of Contents

Carl Bergstrom, a biologist at the University of Washington in Seattle who has studied science-funding models, says it’s interesting that substantial changes in grant structure generally yielded little to no change in the researchers’ hypothetical behaviour. “I just don’t know what to make of that,” he says, noting that it’s unclear whether this finding is a result of the study design, or is saying something about scientists’ attitude towards change. “One consistent explanation of all of this would be that fairly reasonable changes in the structure of one particular individual grant don’t do enough to change the overall incentive structure that scientists face for them to alter their behaviour.”

Bergstrom adds that modifying grant structures can still be a valuable exercise that could result in different kinds of candidate applying for and securing funding, which in turn might affect the kind of research that is produced. Myers and Tham didn’t examine whether modifying grant structures would affect the diversity of the pool of candidates, but they have investigated the nuances of risk-taking in research in another study, also posted as a preprint in December2. Researchers were surveyed about their appetite for risky science and how it affected their approach to grants. The survey found a strong link between the perceived risk of research and the amount of time spent applying for grants.

To get a clearer understanding of whether the findings of the surveys would hold in the real world, funders would need to modify actual grants, says Myers. He acknowledges that this would be a big commitment and a risk, but doing so could have significant benefits for science.

There is growing interest in finding more efficient and effective grant structures. In November, the national funder UK Research and Innovation launched a new Metascience Unit, which is dedicated to finding more sophisticated and efficient ways to make funding and policy decisions. The following month, the US National Science Foundation announced that it would be conducting a series of social and economic experiments to determine how its funding processes can be improved.

As for the survey, Myers hopes the findings can provide insights to inform such initiatives. “As long as we’ve reduced uncertainty about what is the best way forward, that is very valuable,” he says. “We hope that our hypothetical experiments are motivation for more real-world experiments in the future.”

Source link


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *