The questions asked in this study
The reason for this publication is that NWO has asked the Rathenau Instituut to investigate possible bases for distributing budget for free, curiosity-driven research. NWO has two instruments for funding that type of research: the Open Competition and the Talent Programme. NWO distributes the available funds across four domains:
- exact and natural sciences (ENW),
- social sciences and humanities (SGW),
- applied and technical sciences (TTW)
- medical sciences (ZonMw).
In addition, NWO has asked the Rathenau Instituut to research how to determine the share of the budget for cross-domain research.
The current division between the domains has grown historically; there is no specific basis for it. All budget applications are considered within one of the four domains. There is currently no separate assessment procedure for proposals that cross domain boundaries.
Our research shows that stakeholders consider the distribution of resources primarily from two perspectives: equitability and effectiveness. A basis for budget distribution should help achieve a distribution that is perceived as both fair and effective. Moreover, a basis should be practical: the indicators on which it is based should both adequately measure relevant arguments and have data available.
The question about cross-domain research was prompted by the observation that, nowadays, many promising developments fall within the intersection of disciplines and domains, including in basic research. The current division of domains may hinder these developments.
A basis for budget allocation ideally takes into account several complicating factors:
- the cost of research varies widely between domains (depending on the method of research and the resources needed for it: infrastructure, data, computing power);
- available sources of funding vary (the availability of donations, private funding, international funds);
- The importance of stability and a long-term perspective.
To get an idea of possible bases for budget allocation, we consulted public research funders (research councils) in a number of surrounding countries. The councils differ in the scope of their task (only funding academic research, or also development and innovation) and in their position vis-à-vis their own funders. This makes comparison between countries difficult. For instance, in the UK, Norway, and Sweden, councils’ spending is strongly determined by the priorities set by ministries. The issue of budget allocation across domains is, therefore, less of an issue.
Although all the research funders we consulted consider the question of a good method of distribution relevant, the actual distribution across the countries we examined appears to be largely historically determined and quite stable. We did not find that the distribution in other countries leads to much controversy. Where a council uses a method for budget distribution, it is relatively simple and aimed at gradually adjusting the distribution to align with developments in research costs and demand for funding.
A possible explanation for this can be found by looking at the procedures used in other countries: not setting specific deadlines for submitting grant applications, limiting opportunities for resubmission of proposals, and facilitating crossovers.
Types of bases for funding
We distinguish different (groups of) potential bases for budget allocation, based on:
- the demand for research funding,
- the quality of research, and
- the impact of research.
Bases for funding based on demand for research funding
The available research budget could be distributed based on actual or potential funding demand from scientists. Higher demand from a domain could justify a larger share of the budget. This demand for funding can be measured directly, by looking at actual applications, or indirectly, by looking at the numbers of completed PhDs in a domain, scientific staff, or research output. Depending on the weight given to such indicators, their use can be expected to lead to smaller or larger shifts in the budget distribution in favour of the domains with the lowest chances of being honoured.
Several remarks can be made about available indirect indicators. For one, PhDs in the medical domain are less likely to choose a research career than PhDs in other domains. Secondly, scientific staff in the SGW domain are appointed with less research time on average than those in the ENW domain. Lastly, publication cultures in the various domains differ greatly, so that indicators for scientific production based on publication data are not comparable.
Grondslagen gebaseerd op kwaliteit of impact van onderzoek in een domein
The distribution of the available research budget could also be based partly on the quality of research within a domain, or its impact. Higher quality and/or more impact of a research project could legitimise a larger share of the budget. But, indicators of quality and impact have important limitations. Publications and citations measure scientific quality and scientific impact only indirectly and partially; they are yardsticks that measure only certain aspects of quality and impact. Moreover, because of the large differences in research practices, they are not suitable for comparing domains.
To better accommodate cross-domain proposals, we see two possibilities:
- a structural adjustment in the form of a separate facility for applications, or
- procedural adjustments to properly accommodate these proposals within existing structures.
In principle, it is possible to allocate part of the total budget for cross-domain applications and develop separate assessment procedures for these applications. The alternative is creating more tailored assessment within the current domains. Possibilities include giving applicants influence on which assessment panels assess their application, or decoupling assessment from the question of which domain funds a proposal.
How to proceed
Whether a budget allocation is fair and effective cannot be determined by looking at the basis for budget distribution. The order should be the other way around: an idea of what is equitable and effective determines which indicators to include in a basis. However, the number of available indicators is limited and possibly insufficient to arrive at a satisfactory basis, especially if it has to include quality and impact of research in addition to demand for resources.
In light of this, several other interventions are worth considering, including balancing procedures across domains, limiting opportunities to submit proposals repeatedly, and promoting more coordination among research grant applicants.
A moe radical option would be to place the Talent Programme, and perhaps the Open Competition, outside the matter domains.