The Academic Research Funding Process

Most academic research worldwide is financed with public funds, distributed through funding agencies for scientific research. Funding agencies tend to allocate (scarce) resources using a competitive process. Albert Banal-Estañol, Inés Macho-Stadler, and David Pérez-Castrillo analyze the causes and the consequences of the choices made in each of the stages of this process in their Barcelona GSE Working Paper (No. 1093), “Funding Academic Research: Grant Application, Partnership, Award, and Output.” The authors present new and prior research results about one of the major public organizations funding academic research worldwide: the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). Key questions about the entire funding process are answered for the first time within a unified framework. 

Step by step

Conceptually, the research funding process can be divided in four steps, which lead to four questions: 

Which academics decide to apply and which decide not to?

Grant applications tends to be time-consuming with a great impact on personal workloads, stress, and personal relationships. However, it is important that original and prolific researchers do apply for funds.

Which academics decide to apply on their own, and which academics choose to apply in collaboration with firms, and with which firms?

Collaboration has benefits and costs, as it provides academics with additional funds and insights, but it might also bias their selection of topics and methodology.

Which grant proposals do get funded and which do not?

As agencies claim to allocate funds based on scientific merit, they should use the information available in the application and award funding to the applications with the highest expected output. 

What is the output, in terms of academic publications, of the funded research projects? 

If a certain attribute increases the likelihood of success, then the agency should be more lenient towards proposals with the attribute.

Some results

As one might expect, prolific academics apply more often, are more likely to be successful in grant applications and publish more out of their grants. A similar history works for academics doing more “basic” research, and those based in more prestigious universities. The main difference refers to collaboration with firms: prolific academics are more likely to apply in collaboration with firms while basic academics, and those based in prestigious universities, are more likely to be non-collaborative. 

Two types of researchers who apply more often are senior researchers and outsiders (researchers who obtained the PhD from an institution that is different from the current one). Interestingly, these two characteristics affect the award and the output differently. Senior researchers are awarded the grant more often, but the likelihood of publishing results is lower. Outsiders, on the other hand, find it more difficult to get their application awarded, but their awarded grants are more likely to generate publications. This hints at a bias in favor of senior academics and against outsiders.

The authors also find biases with respect to the size of the teams, as large teams are penalized in the award process although they do generally better in terms of publications. Collaborative projects, instead, are more likely to get financed, but they are more likely to end up with unpublished research.

In this working paper, the authors provide a broad view of the academic research funding process. Their results provide initial evidence for some of the policies that could improve the funding process.