Competing does not give better results: is science being funded well?


Project-based research funding has no differential impact, compared to traditional institutional funding, in terms of the production of highly cited academic articles, nor a clear effect on the number of publications.

This is the conclusion reached by a study led by the University of Seville . The analysis is based on data from 10 countries and 148 European universities with a clear focus on research between 2011 and 2019. We have considered institutional and project funding at both national and university level and analyzed their effect on the amount and the quality of the publications.

At none of the levels does there appear a differentiating effect between the two types of financing.

Strong increase in funding per project

The results contrast with the strong increase in research funding per project since the 1980s in the vast majority of European countries.

The main justification for this evolution is based on the assumption, on the part of ministries and funding agencies, that the financing of research by projects represents an improvement in academic performance due to its fundamentally competitive nature .

Under this modality, a group or an individual is funded to carry out a generally defined research activity on the basis of a proposal that describes the activities to be carried out.

The selection of these proposals is based on a competitive process in which public agencies decide to finance based on a quality evaluation and based on a set of agreed criteria .

Instead, institutional financing is defined as the financing of institutions without direct selection of projects to be carried out. Under this model, the receiving institution (and not the funding organization) has discretion over which projects should be carried out .

The arguments for and against competition

Project financing is defended based on three fundamental arguments:

  • improves academic performance;
  • should lead to the selection of the best researchers through a standardized evaluation of projects;
  • encourages specific research topics of interest to public or private funding organizations and increases the socioeconomic impact of research.

Calls for competition would incentivize researchers to propose high-quality projects as they would improve their reputation.

Another argument points out that project funding would lead to shorter-term, more applied and less risky research than institutional funding, which would encourage more exploratory science .

One explanation for increasing the proportion of funding per project is that, while exploratory research might be perceived by evaluation committees as less likely to produce tangible results, more applied projects would offer more guarantees and would therefore be more compelling when deciding whether or not to provide funding for research.

Analysis produces ambiguous results

In contrast to the increase in project funding over recent decades, the available empirical evidence on the effect of this modality on research performance has so far been inconclusive.

While some studies find a positive impact of project financing on research production , others do not find a direct connection between this type of financial incentives and scientific production .

A more recent study highlights a negative relationship between project funding and scientific performance.

Furthermore, most of these cited studies focus on a single level (national or university) and use different indicators to measure academic performance (they usually measure either the quantity or the number of citations).

Our results

The study carried out at the University of Seville integrates the different perspectives to propose a multilevel analysis (national and university) and analyzes both the number of publications and the most cited articles as measures of academic production.

The results confirm that the only variable that has a positive impact on both the quantity and quality of publications is the amount of budgets dedicated to research.

On the other hand, neither the project financing modality nor the institutional modality impact academic performance.

Data analyzed between 2011 and 2019 also illustrate that during this decade and in contrast to the previous 30 years, the proportions of institutional and project funding for research have stabilized in most European countries.

After decades of increase, levels of project finance and institutional finance may have reached a relatively stable equilibrium in which institutional finance provides acceptable levels of stability within national systems, while project finance provides the flexibility necessary.

While institutional financing allows for long-term research, the project modality in turn allows States to direct research towards national priorities.

Both mechanisms are necessary, but neither guarantees the improvement of science.

Author Bio: Thomas Zacharewicz is a Researcher María Zambrano in Knowledge Economics at the University of Seville