In research, time is as important as money

18 August 2016

Branwen Morgan

Westend61 GmbH/ Alamy Stock Photo

Do longer periods of funding lead to greater scientific returns?

Across the world, government science budgets are being squeezed, demanding that funding organizations are ever more efficient in distributing money. In the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and the United States, a significant proportion of research is funded by grants, which support individuals, teams or projects for a defined period.

A challenge is determining the ideal length of a grant to maximize a project’s chance of success while spreading funds as widely as possible.

The National Institutes of Health in the United States runs the country’s largest health-related research grant programme, the R01, which funds successful applications for, on average, four and a half years. In Australia, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) project grants – the R01’s comparator – run, on average, for just under three and half years.

Given a grant application can take months to write, some of Australia’s medical researchers have argued that three years of funding is not long enough. They say productivity and the likelihood of breakthroughs are reduced by the administrative burden.

While the NHMRC has always offered project grants of up to five years, historically they were awarded for three, so investigators shaped their applications accordingly, says Anne Kelso, CEO of the NHMRC. The 2013 McKeon Review of Australia’s health and medical research encouraged longer funding periods, a recommendation that has started to take effect.

In 2015, the NHMRC distributed more than AU$464 million in project grants, of which four and five year grants comprised 40% of the 516 successful applications, compared with 11% in 2012. This may, in part, explain why the number of NHMRC grants hit an all-time low of 13.7% last year.

The NHMRC distributes funds among four research areas – basic science, clinical and medical science, public health and health services, of which applications in the latter three categories are more likely to request four to five year grants. “Three years for clinical or epidemiological studies would be very constraining,” says Kelso.

Australia’s short, three-year election cycle makes it difficult for funding organizations to allocate longer-term grants.

Judgment call

The NIH aims to fund as many scientists as possible, says Michael Lauer, deputy director for extramural research at the NIH. Expert reviewers determine how much money to give research projects, and over what period. Last year it distributed more than US$ 10 billion dollars in R01 grants, with the average grant worth more than four hundred thousand dollars.

Of the 5467 successful R01 grants in 2015, 80% were funded for four or five years. Of the projects that requested five-year funding, 31% were given reduced funding over four years. “That means making difficult decisions about reducing budgets or project duration,” he says. “But the data suggests that time is at least as important a predictor of grant outcome as money.”

A 2010 economics study looking at predictors of grant productivity by measuring the number of highly cited papers compared Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigators with similarly qualified NIH researchers. The HHMI funds people rather than projects and gives investigators the freedom to explore multiple hypotheses. NIH grants are tied to defined deliverables in a shorter timeframe.

The study found that HHMI researchers were more likely to produce high-impact papers than their NIH peers. They were also more likely to publish in a wider selection of journals, suggesting they were more adventurous in pursuing ideas and experiments outside their field. “It’s not surprising that the longer a person is funded the more they can do,” says Lauer. He expects an association between longer periods of stable funding and productivity would be applicable to all areas of science.

The study’s results influenced the NIH, and it now funds several lengthy grant programmes within its 27 institutes and centres. The National Cancer Institute and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute are funded for seven years, while the eight-year National institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke award is contingent on a favourable five-year review. “It makes it easier to cut [funding] off if the results aren’t there,” Lauer says. “We aren’t good stewards of taxpayers’ money if we are funding unproductive investigators for long periods.”

The NIH also plans to analyze whether longer periods of stable funding for research generate greater returns to society by using a new tool that integrates journal bibliometrics with their own datasets, and those from the FDA and US patent office. “We’ll be able to trace back and determine the potential role certain types of NIH grants or NIH-funded researchers and organizations have played in the development of transformative discoveries,” adds Lauer.

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