Small universities in Canada suffer ‘systemic bias’ in funding

Paper predicts that the number of funded researchers at small institutions will decline by two-thirds in the next decade if ‘skews are left uncorrected’

June 14, 2016
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Established science academics at small universities in Canada are 42 per cent less likely to secure federal research funding than their counterparts at large institutions, according to a paper that highlights the “systemic bias” against small universities.

The paper, “Bias in research grant evaluation has dire consequences for small universities”, published in Plos One, found that funding success was also 20 per cent lower for established researchers at medium-sized institutions.

The research was based on an analysis of funding levels and success rates for individual applications submitted to Canada’s Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) from 2011 to 2014.

It predicts that individual funding support will decline at all institutions during the next decade, because of a bias towards established researchers that already hold a Discovery Grant – an individual research grant from NSERC – but especially at small universities; it estimates that the number of funded researchers will decline by two-thirds at small institutions and one-third at large and medium-sized institutions, if “skews are left uncorrected”.

Dennis Murray, Canada research chair in terrestrial ecology and co-author of the study, said that the research used NSERC’s definitions of the size of a university, which is based on the amount of funding that the institution typically receives but strongly correlates to the number of students.

He suggested that the “systemic bias” arising during grant proposal evaluations is caused by the opportunity for “human prejudices” based on the applicant’s name, institution and background, but that this could be mitigated by introducing blind review policies and qualitative metrics based on applicants’ publication output.

“One might think, given this person is at a small institution, they don’t have the resources necessary to conduct the work or they may not be able to do it because they have too much teaching to do,” he told Times Higher Education. “It’s human nature to have difficulty disassociating those kinds of prejudices when we’re evaluating proposals even when we have the best interests at heart.”

He added that “some of the onus” is on small universities to “become more competitive”, strongly support their most productive researchers and become more “vocal” in convincing the government of their scientific contributions.

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