What makes funding programs fair?

A summary of fair funding policies and examples of good practices

Elisa Floriddia, David Eccles, Tai-Ying Lee, Orsolya Symmons, Freyja Olafsdottir, eLife Ambassadors, and Vinodh Ilangovan and Lotte de Winde, eLife Early Career Advisory Group members

The ability to secure funding plays a key role in career advancement and reputation of a researcher. However, the design of funding programmes as well as funding decisions often put some applicants at disadvantaged positions for reasons unrelated to their research potential and performance. In the competitive landscape of life sciences research resources, a fair distribution of funding amongst scientists is a need of the hour.

Taking a closer look at funding opportunities, we highlighted two major factors that we considered as potential sources of inequality. The first factor centered around the evaluation process of grants and fellowships, where current practices may disproportionately benefit established scientists or (unintentionally) introduce racial and gender biases. The second factor we identified was the impact stemming from the complexities of personal life of a scientist – related to timing in between grant proposals, family status, health or those with less standard career paths.

We present examples of good practices within existing funding schemes to help (early-career) researchers identify fellowship opportunities that might best apply in their circumstances. Far from being a systematic review of funding available in science, this article discusses certain trends to look out for. We also hope to stimulate a wider discussion within the community, thereby encouraging adoption of more inclusive policies by funding bodies around the world.

1. Evaluation of grant proposals

Blind review as tool to improve fair funding? Some say: “No”

Researchers often wonder whether a blinded peer review evaluation of a grant proposal would increase fairness in funding distribution and increase the focus of reviewers on scientific excellence. Funding agencies mostly prefer a non-blinded peer review process to allow the assessment of a project’s feasibility such as the infrastructure available at the host institution or a record of successful management of previous funds to name a few. There are not many systematic studies on this topic yet, but a recent assessment by the Agency for Health Quality and Assessment of Catalonia (AQuAS) seems to suggest that blinded peer review is only partially beneficial.

AQuAS has been asking reviewers to evaluate the same proposals in a blinded and unblinded fashion since 2001. A meta-analysis of this practice included 5,000 proposals evaluated in this manner and showed that reviewers changed their evaluation after the disclosure of the applicant’s names and publication records in approximately 20% of the cases. In the remaining 80% of proposals, reviewers did not change their assessment.

Pre-prints as tool to improve fair funding? Some say: “Yes!”

Pre-prints are becoming common practice in the life sciences. Preprint platforms such as BioRxiv allow researchers to rapidly share their discoveries, get peer feedback, take ownership of their work and demonstrate productivity, which may help when applying for funding. Preprints can therefore be a potential tool to counteract lengthy revisions: high-impact factor journal articles have an average revision time of around a year, which can hinder the ability of researchers to apply for grants and academic positions in a timely manner. Some funding agencies are recognising this issue and allow researchers to include manuscripts published on preprint servers in the publication record on applications. This is useful for academics at all career stages and especially for early career researchers, as their publication records do not span decades of research work.

Since March 2017, NIH allows applicants to include their preprint drafts in both grant applications and reports. Similarly, in Europe, many prestigious programs have already included comparable policies, including the UK Medical Research Council, Wellcome Trust (UK),  EMBO Long-term Fellowships, the Human Frontiers Science Program, and Cancer Research UK (http://asapbio.org/funder-policies). From this year, the European Commission will also consider preprints from applicants for the prestigious European Research Council grants.

Diversifying risk to improve fair funding? Some say: “Yes!”

High Innovation/Net-Gain/Expectation (HINGE) funds have developed organically, as funding agencies realise that there is a need for innovative research that steps outside the realm of what is already known. These funds emphasise ideas, rather than track record, and may therefore be more attractive for early career researchers and underrepresented minorities. Funding bodies understand that projects are testing the waters of innovative research and that not every funded project will be productive: there is a reduced expectation of prior research, and a reduced need to demonstrate immediate impact.

A couple of research papers suggest that funding bodies could do more to encourage the development of innovative research, by taking more risks in their selection process for projects. Despite these signals, track record remains an important factor in decision process. Projects are also frequently rejected when they produce strongly-polarizing views from reviewers. Such projects would be more likely to fit well into the HINGE category. Allowing controversial projects an opportunity for funding would result in a more diverse array of research projects.

An additional category of funding can be found in philanthropic or community funding, where smaller grants are awarded for small, low-risk projects. While thinking about the perception of risk and reward in funding schemes, we realised that there was a missing category of funding that could be excluding some research: a high-risk / low reward category. Crowdfunding is one mechanism that allows to address that gap (e.g. GoFundMe, Kickstarter). It allows a large number of individuals to contribute small amounts of money to a high-risk project, with no (or minimal) expectation of return. Crowdfunding tends to favour women and junior/early-career researchers, according to recent research.

As an alternative to separate risk/reward funding schemes, a simulation was carried out of different funding models with varying degrees of career success. This simulation discovered that a universal funding system (with the same amount awarded to all applicants) was the cheapest way to achieve success for a large number of talented people.

Lottery-based system to improve fair funding? Some say: “Yes! Humans are bad at predictions!”

Multiple studies suggest that expert peer review is unable to accurately predict which applications are the “best” among many good grant submissions and will end up with the biggest impact. This is mostly connected to our poor ability to make accurate predictions, regardless our level of experience. Additionally, grant review can introduce systematic implicit biases. In other words, peer evaluation of grant applications can (unwantedly) create unfair advantages and provide a false sense of justification to a somewhat random process. As a possible solution, multiple authors and organizations have suggested a lottery selection system, which typically includes an initial pre-selection of applications based on minimal criteria, followed by a random selection step among those that have passed this cutoff.

Currently, we were able to identify only two examples of funding programs implementing a lottery-based system, which are the Explorer Grants of the Health Research Council of New Zealand and a pilot program by the Volkswagen Stiftung. In both cases approximately half of the grants are assigned based on expert opinion, while the other half is assigned based on a lottery system. It remains to be seen what the impact of these new initiatives will be, although the Volkswagen Stiftung’s initial evaluation of their randomized approach showed that the proposals selected this way showed no bias in terms of research field or the age and gender of the applicants. Nevertheless, scientists have mixed feelings about this approach. When the EMBO Fellows program polled researchers in 2018, 66% (of 361 votes) supported the lottery system, but the poll also received numerous negative comments. Similarly, a 2013 survey of Australian researchers found that only 43% supported a lottery for National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) proposals that were categorised as “possibly fund” after peer review.

Preliminary grant application round to improve fair funding? Maybe, and you definitely spare yourself many days of grant writing.

Early career researchers wanting to apply for postdoctoral fellowships face a long, time-consuming process. Time from starting of writing till the final decision can easily take up to a year. Many application processes are multi-stage: (1) submission of a written proposal, (2, optional) submission of a rebuttal, and (3) a final round with an interview. Given that scientists at the start of their independent research career are typically under immense time pressure and need to demonstrate their ability to obtain funding, such lengthy evaluation can take a toll on their productivity, and in case of a negative result can be damaging to their career.

Thus, early career researchers might benefit from a first quick round, where they submit their CV and a short summary on their proposed research (1-2 pages). In this scenario, results of the pre-submission could be known within one month after submission.  In the case of a negative decision, the applicant has time to adapt the research proposal or building on the CV to apply for another fellowship, or submit their proposal again in a next round. In case of a positive decision, the applicant will need to write the full research proposal. But at this stage there is a degree of certainty that their profile and research idea are a good fit for the call and they have a good chance of seeing their proposal funded. Some funding bodies have already included a preliminary application round in their grant proposal process:

 2. What about your personal circumstances?

Beside the excellence of science, there are also several elements of people’s life that should be considered when outlining a funding scheme.

Time limit

One of the eligibility criteria for many fellowships and, in some countries, for career progression is the number of years after obtaining a doctoral degree. For example, in  Sweden, researchers can only apply for Assistant Professorship within 5 years after PhD graduation (extension of this limit due to parental or sick leaves applies).

Although these policies are introduced with good intentions – for instance to ensure that early-career scientists are not outcompeted by more experienced colleagues – such time limit overlooks the fact that the amount of time for experimental research if often uncertain. Furthermore, such restrictions do not allow for flexible career paths, and assume that the speed of career progression reflects researchers’ ability. In other words, this system promotes early-career scientists who know the system and “collect the right stamps” on their CVs, while those that are less familiar with the science funding and hiring landscape can be at a disadvantaged position.

Recently, several institutions have started to address these problems: as a minimum, most organizations now allow extensions of these time limits in the case of parental leave. In addition, some institutions in the UK, like the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the Wellcome Trust, have removed the time-restriction criteria from their fellowship applications.

Parental leave and other career-breaks

Starting a family is a frequent occurrence for many early-career scientists, but it can be daunting, given the penalty it may incur on careers, especially for women. And while equally sharing parental duties among both parents is becoming common practice, not all countries and/or funding schemes allow scientists of both genders to take parental leave. This results in more negative consequences for female scientists than male scientists, as the former often face the need to prioritise child care responsibilities over their scientific career. A recent Twitter poll run by scientists at the University College of London showed that two third of scientists had issues regarding funding of parental leave. For 17% of those responders, this resulted in ending of their contract. Thankfully, several (unfortunately not all) funding agencies, foundations, and societies have policies in place to support scientist parents and/or scientists that take other types of career breaks. Typically this includes at least an extension of the fellowship (between 6 weeks and 18 months), which in some cases (e.g. EMBO, HFSP, NWO, NIH Ruth Kirchstein) applies equally to mothers and fathers. Some organizations (e.g. EMBO, Wellcome Trust) provide further flexibility to parents by making it possible to return to work part-time.

In addition to these programs that support short parental leave, a small number of fellowships explicitly aims to support scientists after a longer career break (regardless of cause) of 1-2 years or more. These include the Marie Curie Career Restart Panel, the Daphne Jackson Trust, the Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship, the Janet Thornton Fellowship and the Research Career Re-entry Fellowships by the Wellcome Trust.

Diversity

Diversity of human capital adds immense value to advancement of scientific process. Thus, in the interest of fairness as well as improving the overall productivity in the academic system is to enhance diversity – in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, disability, economic background, etc. Here are two examples of programmes that have the specific goal to promote diversity in science.

  • Neuroscience Scholar Program of the Society for Neuroscience (USA): a two-year program offering travel awards and mentoring as well as educational resources for the professional development of young scientists from underrepresented communities or with disabilities. This program has more than 30 year of history and won the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring in 2018.
  • Donders Mohrman Fellowship (Netherlands): a starting grant for underrepresented minorities and gender in science.

In summary, navigating the funding landscape is never easy, but can be particularly frustrating for early-career researchers, as well as those from groups chronically underrepresented in science. We hope that the inclusive policies we listed in this article will help more scientists find grant schemes that have been designed taking circumstances such as theirs into account. While we were not able to examine all funding opportunities available for life sciences and biomedical research, we hope to point out promising practices to look out for.


For those looking for funding, please visit the ECRcentral.org to search for fellowships and travel awards.

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