Research funding is already a lottery: let’s make it explicit!

Selection processes in research funding are known to be unreliable, costly and prone to bias. Injecting some randomness into the process may improve science while improving fairness and efficiency, says Dorothy Bishop, a neuropsychologist in Oxford, who started a lively online-discussion among researchers.

Grant-seeking academics as well as reviewers and administrators often complain that research funding is a lottery and that it is expensive in terms of time of all three groups. It is generally the case that only a small proportion of submitted proposals can be funded as money is tight. The current system also has potential for bias: even when the subject range is narrow, it is unlikely that the review panel’s expertise will cover all topics. And the question arises as to whether an assessment led by distinguished academics who have succeeded in the current system will necessarily lead to the selection of the most talented researchers with promising non-mainstream ideas, i.e. innovative research. 

My experiences on grants boards made me start to wonder whether it would make sense to have a literal lottery, with funding assigned at random. In a blogpost I developed the idea that funders could operate an initial triage to weed out clearly weak or unsuitable proposals, but all those passing this bar would then be entered into a lottery. I ran a simple poll on Twitter in April 2018, asking academics to vote on this idea, and to specify whether or not they were currently funded. Just over 1000 people replied within 24 hours, and 66% were in favour of the lottery option – regardless of whether or not they had current research funding.(1)

Mark Humphries, a neuroscientist from Nottingham, drew attention to his blogpost in which he had estimated the time wasted on grant applications, concluding: “It is absurd because the time spent writing proposals for research to be done in the future takes up more time than actually doing the research right now. I don’t know about you, but personally I’d rather my tax got spent on doing research, not on writing applications… There’s another reason: randomness keeps science healthy. New ideas and projects would get funded, providing variation in approaches and insights. It would mean no bubbles, no herd behaviour, no chasing the latest shiny baubles.” 

Respondents also pointed me to other relevant sources. I was intrigued to hear that the Volkswagen Foundation – amongst only a handful of other agencies worldwide – is already trialling partially randomized selection in its ‘Experiment!’ exploratory grants scheme. This is exactly the kind of scheme that seems well-suited to this approach: the focus is on daring new ideas, the subject area is wide, the amount of funding fairly modest, and the number of applications dramatically exceeds the number that can be funded. 

I can see three clear advantages in a lottery approach. First, it is far less costly and time-consuming than traditional funding methods. Second, it means that panel members cannot allow their implicit biases to affect funding decisions. And, indeed, if funders want to adopt some kind of positive discrimination – for instance, favouring specific subject areas or promoting younger scientists – then they can just increase the number of entries into the lottery for those in that category. Third, this method prevents institutions using grant funding as a proxy for research quality when evaluating staff: a practice that is common in the UK, but of questionable validity and fairness.

I will watch with interest how the Volkswagen Foundation scheme works out. Four selection rounds will be examined by accompanying research. The key question, of course, is whether quality suffers when research is funded this way. Shahar Avin, a Cambridge researcher whose doctoral thesis focused on the impacts of different funding models, gives grounds for optimism. He concluded that quality should improve, because the conventional systems discourage funding of high-risk research, whereas science benefits when we include diverse proposals that may not fit mainstream categories, e.g., multidisciplinary projects, and those incorporating an element of risk. 

Author: Dorothy Bishop

Dorothy Bishop is Professor for Developmental Neuropsychology at the University of Oxford. In her blog "Bishopblog" she refers to a variety of topics, including reproducibility in research. She is also active on Twitter: @deevybee.


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"NEULAND ENTDECKEN" - Preview on our journal IMPULSE 2019

The article by Dorothy Bishop will also be featured in our next issue of the magazine IMPULSE (in German), which will be published in early 2019. We are happy to include you in our mailing list and to provide you with a printed copy of the magazine free of charge, if you send us an e-mail with your postal address and the keyword "Impulse" to rosengart-kamburis (at)