International study to examine lottery-based research funding

Grant funders to assess whether randomly picking ‘middle-level’ research projects for funding is fairer, more efficient and better for science

July 1, 2020
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A major international study is to examine whether awarding research funding via a lottery is fairer, more efficient and leads to better scholarship.

Announcing its first wave of projects since its launch in September 2019, the Research on Research Institute (RoRI) said that it will lead the largest analysis of the use of randomisation in grant funding to date, examining how modified lotteries are used by funding bodies across different countries.

The work by the consortium, whose members include UK Research and Innovation, the Australian Research Council and America’s National Institute for Health Research, will focus on experiments by funders as they consider whether more random allocation of grants, rather than purely “excellence-based” decisions, can reduce “unconscious bias”. Earlier this week, UKRI published research showing that grant success rates for women and ethnic minority researchers were significantly lower than those of male and white academics.

Among the RoRI members that have used lotteries to award some funding are the Volkswagen Foundation, the largest private research funder in Germany, and the Swiss National Science Foundation.

Several other members were keen to begin their own lottery schemes that could used, in particular, for deciding between “middle-level” research applications with an equally strong claim to funding, explained RoRI’s director James Wilsdon, professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield.

“When you are sitting on panels, you can often easily spot the really outstanding applications – or the stuff that isn’t much good – but there is also a middle level of proposals that will probably lead to valuable research where it is very hard to choose between candidates,” said Professor Wilsdon.

“The distinctions between them are so fine-grain that it is sometimes quite hard to defend why you chose one over another – it is this area where grant funders can be susceptible to implicit bias, whether that is linguistic, institutional or gender bias,” he added, suggesting that lottery-based decisions for this group could address some of these issues.

The institute will also examine whether introducing lottery-based funding in some circumstances could remove red tape from the process, he said.

“A big motivation is making the process more efficient and whether lotteries can be designed that make the application process faster and lighter touch,” said Professor Wilsdon.

However, the “killer question” about lottery-based funding systems is “whether they help to fund better research”, he continued.

“We have no idea about this so far, but we will begin to look at this in the study,” he said, saying that the coordination of studies across a number of countries would help provide more useful answers to this question. “Having a comparative dimension is useful because people cannot just say ‘this may work at UKRI, but it won’t work here’ because of various confounding factors’,” said Professor Wilsdon, whose consortium members provide more than $20 billion (£16.5 billion) in research funding annually.

Other studies funded by the consortium include an examination of whether grant application criteria lead to inequalities in research funding, whether new definitions or alternatives to excellence can be found, and a six-country study in how research cultures can be made more diverse and inclusive.

“By supporting and conducting real-time experimentation, data-gathering and analysis, we have real opportunities to strengthen research cultures and decision making,” said Professor Wilsdon.

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Reader's comments (3)

Surely the answer is an anonymous process that judges applications on merit. There is already enough chance in life that can hold back a career without adding yet more.
Not sure how I feel about this. Writing grants application is a work not of days or weeks but months. To be told that your project wasn't picked by the random number generator after all that efford can be more disheartening than to be told the project is not good enough compared to similar others. The system needs a complete re-haul, starting with the tortuous process of grant applications that take so much valuable time, which could otherwise be used to actually do research. Basically, I am saying make the process simpler for everyone, not just for the evaluators.
This is one of the most ridiculous suggestions yet made. Research should only be funded on merit to ensure that the best science gets supported. If unconscious bias is to be avoided, then pseudonymise where possible. It is not clear if certain groups really are disadvantaged or whether it is that all possible factors have not been considered as is often the case. Lottery based approaches have no place in deciding research funding.