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Recent Research: Could a lottery system for grant funding lead to better outcomes?

April 26, 2018
By: Robert Ksiazkiewicz

Last year, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) considered multiple strategies to address the implicit bias toward researchers with ‘proven track records’ during its existing grant making process. While previous research studies have found similar concerns about the current grant making process, two recent studies from the University of Cambridge propose that grant-making organizations consider implementing a lottery system to allocate grant awards to alleviate bias and improve outcomes.  

Through the current ‘merit-based’ system, researchers from select top universities, especially those who have previously received federal funding, are more likely to receive grant funding from federal agencies than other applicants. This trend potentially results in diminishing marginal returns for public R&D dollars and raises concerns about a potential shortage of federally-funded, skilled researchers as the researchers with ‘proven track records’ advance in age.  The Cambridge studies contend that a lottery system would reduce bias during the grant making process and increase R&D impacts at a better rate than the existing system.

In What do we know about grant peer review in the health sciences?, a group of researchers (Susan Guthrie, Ioana Ghigi, and Steven Wooding) contend that there is insufficient evidence supporting the efficiency of the peer-review process in awarding grants in the health sciences. In their meta-analysis of 105 previous studies, the authors find the peer-review process rarely leads to the meritorious awarding of grants because the process can be heavily biased against younger researchers, more innovative research proposals, and researchers from less prestigious universities. The authors also found no strong evidence that a ‘proven track record’ of R&D results will lead to future R&D success.

In Centralised Funding and Epistemic Exploration, Shahar Avin – another researcher from the University of Cambridge – used computer simulations to find that random allocation funding performed better than the peer-review process during the grant-making process. In his model, the researcher found similar findings to the aforementioned study with regards to previous success having no clear relationship with future success. The author contends that this lack of support for researchers without a proven track record has stifled innovation and exploration.  

To stimulate innovation, increase the pool of funded research, and increase scientific exploration, both studies propose a lottery system. Authors Guthrie et al outline two policy recommendations for implementing a lottery system including:

  • First, a blind peer-review process should be conducted to ensure that the studies included in the lottery system achieved certain defined standards; and,
  • Second, the lottery process must ensure that all applicants receive an equal opportunity to be selected to ensure that new bias isn’t introduced in the lottery process.


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