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      Big Science vs. Little Science: How Scientific Impact Scales with Funding

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      PLoS ONE
      Public Library of Science

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          Agencies that fund scientific research must choose: is it more effective to give large grants to a few elite researchers, or small grants to many researchers? Large grants would be more effective only if scientific impact increases as an accelerating function of grant size. Here, we examine the scientific impact of individual university-based researchers in three disciplines funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). We considered four indices of scientific impact: numbers of articles published, numbers of citations to those articles, the most cited article, and the number of highly cited articles, each measured over a four-year period. We related these to the amount of NSERC funding received. Impact is positively, but only weakly, related to funding. Researchers who received additional funds from a second federal granting council, the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, were not more productive than those who received only NSERC funding. Impact was generally a decelerating function of funding. Impact per dollar was therefore lower for large grant-holders. This is inconsistent with the hypothesis that larger grants lead to larger discoveries. Further, the impact of researchers who received increases in funding did not predictably increase. We conclude that scientific impact (as reflected by publications) is only weakly limited by funding. We suggest that funding strategies that target diversity, rather than “excellence”, are likely to prove to be more productive.

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          Cost of the NSERC Science Grant Peer Review System exceeds the cost of giving every qualified researcher a baseline grant.

          Using Natural Science and Engineering Research Council Canada (NSERC) statistics, we show that the $40,000 (Canadian) cost of preparation for a grant application and rejection by peer review in 2007 exceeded that of giving every qualified investigator a direct baseline discovery grant of $30,000 (average grant). This means the Canadian Federal Government could institute direct grants for 100% of qualified applicants for the same money. We anticipate that the net result would be more and better research since more research would be conducted at the critical idea or discovery stage. Control of quality is assured through university hiring, promotion and tenure proceedings, journal reviews of submitted work, and the patent process, whose collective scrutiny far exceeds that of grant peer review. The greater efficiency in use of grant funds and increased innovation with baseline funding would provide a means of achieving the goals of the recent Canadian Value for Money and Accountability Review. We suggest that developing countries could leapfrog ahead by adopting from the start science grant systems that encourage innovation.
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            Sources of funding for Nobel Prize-winning work: public or private?

            Funding is important for scientists' work and may contribute to exceptional research outcomes. We analyzed the funding sources reported in the landmark scientific papers of Nobel Prize winners. Between 2000 and 2008, 70 Nobel laureates won recognition in medicine, physics, and chemistry. Sixty five (70%) of the 93 selected papers related to the Nobel-awarded work reported some funding source including U.S. government sources in 53 (82%), non-U.S. government sources in 19 (29%), and nongovernment sources in 33 (51%). A substantial portion of this exceptional work was unfunded. We contacted Nobel laureates whose landmark papers reported no funding. Thirteen Nobel laureates responded and offered their insights about the funding process and difficulties inherent in funding. Overall, very diverse sources amounting to a total of 64 different listed sponsors supported Nobel-related work. A few public institutions, in particular the U.S. National Institutes of Health (with n=26 funded papers) and the National Science Foundation (with n=17 papers), stood out for their successful record for funding exceptional research. However, Nobel-level work arose even from completely unfunded research, especially when institutions offered a protected environment for dedicated scientists.
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              Research efficiency: Turn the scientific method on ourselves.


                Author and article information

                Role: Editor
                PLoS One
                PLoS ONE
                PLoS ONE
                Public Library of Science (San Francisco, USA )
                19 June 2013
                : 8
                : 6
                : e65263
                [1]Ottawa-Carleton Institute of Biology, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
                Université de Montréal, Canada
                Author notes

                Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

                Conceived and designed the experiments: DJC JMF. Performed the experiments: JMF. Analyzed the data: JMF DJC. Contributed reagents/materials/analysis tools: DJC. Wrote the paper: JMF DJC.

                Copyright @ 2013

                This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

                : 12 February 2013
                : 23 April 2013
                Page count
                Pages: 9
                This study was funded by an Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program grant, and a work-study grant at the University of Ottawa to JMF, and a (mid-sized) grant from NSERC to DJC. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.
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