Position Paper: Maximising Investment in Research

Although it may be counter-intuitive, the government should not concentrate its funding on a small number of large projects, but rather fund a wider range of smaller projects, and pay particular attention to the work of mid-career researchers.

This position paper is based on our response to the government’s proposals in its R&D Roadmap. Our full response can be found here.

How do we ensure that investments in research have the greatest effect? This is the fundamental question at the heart of all research funding:

In 2016 Michael Lauer, the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) Deputy Director for Extramural Research, attempted to identify the most productive use of its funding by looking for a correlation between the amount of funding a project had received and the number of citations it got. This he described as “citations per dollar”.

Lauer’s analysis suggested that there was some correlation between the amount of funding a project received and the resultant citations, up to a point. For non-human NIH-funded studies, this was around the $1 million mark. After that it tailed off markedly.

Given this, and the fact that it was almost impossible to predict where breakthroughs in science were going to happen, Lauer concluded that ‘the best way to maximise the chance of such extreme transformative discoveries is…to do all we can to fund as many scientists as possible.’

Although large ‘moonshots’ are important to galvanise and coordinate efforts in a particular area, and to ‘inspire a whole new generation of scientists’ (question 8), there is a real danger of investing heavily in a few areas that are decided centrally. As Fortis and Currie (2013) found, ‘impact is a decelerating function of grant size.’

It may seem counterintuitive to provide a large number of smaller investments than a small number of larger ones. However,as Jon Lorsch, the Director of the US National Institute of General Medical Sciences, wrote: ‘it is impossible to know where or when the next big advances will arise, and history tells us that they frequently spring from unexpected sources. It is also impossible to know what threads of foundational knowledge will be woven together to produce a new breakthrough. Supporting a wide variety of lines of inquiry will improve the chances of important discoveries being made.’

Eastern Arc is supportive of this approach. In addition, it would encourage the government to look at investing more in mid-career researchers. An analysis of 2,000 twentieth century Nobel prize winners and other notable scientists found that the age at which most had their breakthrough ideas was between 34 and 39, although this differs markedly depending on the field.

Nevertheless, the principle still stands: there’s a lack of funding directed specifically at those who have established themselves, but haven’t yet got the profile where management and other demands distract from their primary research. A stronger concentration of funding on this age group offers the opportunity to make a significant difference.