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Scientists’ early grant success fuels further funding

Young researchers who narrowly miss out on postdoctoral grant struggle to compete with those who just qualify.

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Young scientists take samples in a laboratory.

Researchers’ future funding can depend on whether or not they had grant success early in their careers.Credit: Westend 61/Getty

The career-defining effect of winning a postdoctoral research grant has been laid bare in an analysis1 of thousands of young researchers’ professional trajectories. The work compared the fate of junior scientists in the Netherlands who just met the bar to qualify for post-PhD research funding with that of people who just missed out on the money. The successful group went on to secure more than twice as much research funding in the subsequent eight years, the analysis found.

The grant-winners were also 50% more likely to become a professor than were the ones who fell short.

What is most striking is that winning the initial grant did not have any effect on the scientists’ publications or impact in the years after, says Shulamit Kahn, an economist at Boston University in Massachusetts. Funders often consider previous awards when making decisions about whom to give money to. “Why are they doing this if it doesn’t increase productivity?” asks Kahn, adding that every funding body should be looking at the effect of their grants.

“If scientists are dissuaded from science by lack of funding, then the investment in scientific training becomes a sunk cost,” says economist Donna Ginther at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.

Common trend

Previous studies have made similar findings about the effects of early-career grants on later success, but the authors of the latest work say that they have been able to compare the fate of researchers with similar abilities in a way that no one else has. Earlier this month, Ginther published the results of a similar analysis for the US National Bureau of Economic Research. She and her colleagues found2 that securing a specific early-career fellowship from the US National Institutes of Health increases a researcher's chance of winning more grants from the funder.

The Dutch study, led by sociologist Thijs Bol at the University of Amsterdam, draws on data from the Netherlands Organization of Scientific Research (NWO), the country’s national research council. The NWO operates a three-stream funding scheme worth €150 million (US$183 million) a year for scientists in the early, mid- and established stages of their careers. Bol and his colleagues tracked more than 4,000 researchers who applied for the scheme’s early-career grant between 2002 and 2008.

Credit: Ref. 1

They looked at the grant-application scores of these academics, and then tracked whether they went on to secure a mid-career grant from the funder in the following eight years. They also counted any grants from the European Research Council won between 2005 and 2016.

For around 1,400 of the early-career applicants, the researchers sourced data from article database Scopus about their publication and citation records before, during and after the time period of the NWO grants. They also looked at each individual’s h-index — a quantitative measure of the number of highly cited papers that an academic produces — at these three time points, and determined how many of them had become a full professor by 2018.

They found that candidates slightly above and below the funding cut-off had different career trajectories, even though their publication and citation records and h-index remained similar.

Researchers who ranked just above the threshold secured €180,000 in research funding over the next 8 years — more than twice as much as those just below it. This was partly because researchers who lost out on the initial grant were less likely to apply for future funding.

“There is a group of very young talented scholars who have bad luck,” says Bol. “They do not get the same resources to bring their ideas to life.”

Work in progress

But the latest work might not capture the whole picture because it only looked at income from two funders, says Peter van den Besselaar, a social scientist at Vrije University in Amsterdam. He says that it could have missed other grants given to the junior scholars. His previous work3 has shown for the social sciences that early-career granting panels in the Netherlands are not able to recognize outstanding talents.

The findings emphasis the need for thoughtful, informed mentoring of junior academics about applying, and persevering, with grant applications, says Kathryn Sutherland, a social scientist at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. “We definitely need to encourage resilience in the face of setbacks,” she adds.

Spokesperson Olivier Morot says that the NWO is aware that early grant success can influence future funding and is looking at what it can do to address that.

Nature 556, 416-417 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-04958-9
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References

  1. 1.

    Bol, T., de Vaan, M. & van de Rijt, A. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1719557115 (2018).

  2. 2.

    Heggeness, M. L., Ginther, D. K., Larenas, M. I. & Carter-Johnson, F. D. NBER Working Paper No. 24508 (National Bureau of Economic Research, 2018).

  3. 3.

    van den Besselaar, P. & Sandström, U. J. Infometrics 9, 826–838 (2015).

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