The paradox of more science funding, less research… we’ve seen this before

Does this sound familiar?

Since 19XX, overall federal research funding in all fields has shown a steady increase, resulting in greater than 40 percent growth (adjusted for inflation) from 19XX to 19XX. University-based researchers have been the primary beneficiaries of this growth. Although the data are harder to come by, relevant Figures from [Agency X] and several universities indicate that the growth in funding for XXX research has been comparable to these overall trends.

However, these figures lump together many different kinds of projects and funders. For example, one element of xxx funding is the base-funded (or core) program, which is the primary source of support for small science endeavors. This report looks at base-funded programs at both NSF and [Agency X] and finds, contrary to the trends described above, that they have not even kept up with inflation and have certainly not been able to keep pace with the explosion in grant requests. As a result, grant sizes have decreased, and the percentage of proposals accepted has dropped. A rough calculation shows that researchers must now write two to four proposals per year to remain funded, up from one or two in 19XX. Of course, increasing the time spent searching for support means that less time is spent on productive research. Rising university overhead and fringe benefit costs, that consume more and more of each grant dollar exacerbate this problem. Clearly, the base-funded program has not participated proportionately in the overall XXX research funding increase. Although we do not attempt to quantify the effect this has had on the quality of science produced, we do find that the core program has become much less efficient during the past decade. We also infer that the lion’s share of new funding has gone into project-specific funding, most of which involves big science efforts.

I’ve blanked out a few things… can you guess what area of research and what time period this refers to? The answer is below the fold.

This is from the executive summary of the National Academies’ report A Space Physics Paradox: Why Has Increased Funding Been Accompanied by Decreased Effectiveness in the Conduct of Space Physics Research?, written in 1994 and detailing trends from 1975-1990. Agency X is NASA.

Biomedical scientists are now learning the same lessons:

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

Research efficiency: Perverse incentives

I’m not sure what the answer is, but just adding more funding is not the answer.


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