Lottery for research grants backed by New Zealand academics

Researchers support funder’s random allocation of research grants by a two-to-one margin, study says

February 19, 2020
Source: Getty

Academics who took part in the world’s first major research grant programme to use a lottery to award funding have backed the method.

The Health Research Council of New Zealand has used a “modified lottery” since 2013 to award grants of NZ$150,000 (£74,900) under its Explorer grants programme to scholars with a “transformative research idea with the potential for major impact”. If an applicant’s idea was deemed innovative and viable by an expert panel, their application was entered into a lottery, with funding allocated randomly until the scheme’s budget was exhausted.

Now a review of the system, published in the journal Research Integrity and Peer Review, has found applicants were two-to-one in favour of the lottery system – regardless of whether their bids were successful or not.

According to the paper by researchers from Australia, New Zealand and the UK, 63 per cent of 126 respondents who applied to the Explorer scheme between 2013 and 2019 approved of the lottery system, and 25 per cent who did not.

The results are likely to intensify the debate over the cost, transparency and fairness of allocating research funds using peer review. In 2018, a review by consultants Rand Europe found that there was evidence that this near-ubiquitous process of awarding grants by peer review in health sciences stifled innovative thinking, was costly and led to cronyism and bias against older researchers.

Peer-reviewed lottery allocation can, the new paper suggests, “minimise the problems of sexism, racism and ageism influencing who receives funding” and “may also increase fairness and support more meritorious ideas”.

“Lotteries also explicitly acknowledge the role of chance in winning funding, which occurs because the review process is somewhat random because of the selection and availability of peer reviewers,” add the authors.

One respondent supportive of the system, quoted in the paper, said they “[did not] think that a randomisation process is any less fair than an individual reviewer finding some minor reason for a great project not to be funded”.

Lucy Pomeroy, senior manager, research investment at New Zealand’s Health Research Council, who co-authored the journal paper, said other sectors might consider adopting the innovative approach.

“The challenge of how best to allocate scarce research funds is not unique to New Zealand,” she told Times Higher Education.

She added that it was “encouraging that applicants are supportive of a modified lottery, a similar sentiment has also been expressed informally by other stakeholders”, and that “as a funder, we are interested in new ways of embedding the funding process within the value chain of health research”.

The council, which has an annual budget of NZ$120 million, was now seeking to use this kind of lottery for three other small grant types, added Ms Pomeroy.

While many respondents supported the lottery, there was also some scepticism. Asked if a lottery system should be used to distribute other types of research grants, respondents were largely split, with 40 per cent supporting the move, 37 per cent against and the remainder undecided.

With more grant winners responding to the survey than non-grant winners, it was also likely that their happier responses were over-represented in the final results, the authors add.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

Considering how much academic career depends on securing external funding, why not go even further? We can also have a lottery for tenure, professorships, heads of academic departments, and senior management roles up to the vice-chancellors and probably even ministers of education? Surely this innovative approach would increase fairness, eliminate biases and generally be a lot of fun.

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