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Winners keep winning in science

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People who win a scientific grant, have a higher chance at obtaining another one later on. And they also become professors more often. New research shows this doesn’t have much to do with talent.

Read in Dutch

It’s called the Matthew-effect: those who have money, will get more money. The same thing happens in science: those who obtain a grant once, have a higher chance of obtaining another.

Sociologists in Amsterdam wanted to find out how strong the effect is. It’s not strange, of course, that an excellent scientist will beat his opponents in procuring a grant or subsidy. But what about researchers of equal talent?

Barely managed
Thijs Bol, sociologist at the University of Amsterdam, and his colleagues looked at researchers who only barely managed to obtain a coveted NWO Veni grant, and then compared these scientists to others who only just didn’t make the cut.

This division has nothing to do with talent. These scientists are all approximately equally talented, and nothing much changes about that later on: winners aren’t cited more than losers, for instance.

But the consequences of winning or losing turn out to be rather significant. Winners have a 2.5 higher chance of obtaining a next grant compared to non-winners, according to a study published on Tuesday. They also have a higher chance of becoming professor. Indeed, the rich become richer.

Partially, this is because losers don’t apply for another scholarship later on, perhaps disillusioned by their loss. “But that only explains about a third of the effect,” Bol says. The rest has to be explained by other causes, he thinks, such as status.

Less than equal chances
If you lose, say, a running match, you’ll still start the next one with equal chances compared to your opponents. Science is different. It’ll put you back a spot when you apply for your next grant, Bol (winner of a Veni grant himself) says. “It’s a loss for Dutch science and innovation, because these aren’t necessarily people you want to lose.”

Perhaps the NOW should award fewer large grants, Bol ponders, such as the ‘gravity subsidies’ and the Vici grants. That way, there’d be more money to award in smaller funds for young scientists. That might actually end up being a better investment, he thinks.

Advantages and disadvantages of the Matthew effect
Research financing institution NWO is familiar with the study, which was published in the renowned American magazine PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences). The NWO says the Matthew effect has both advantages and disadvantages. “A positive thing, for instance, is that the resources are divided amongst excellent scholars, who are then able to use it for research in which younger researchers also get the change to grow and learn.”

A disadvantage is that the return on investment in research becomes less if the number of grants awarded to a single person becomes too high, the NWO says. It also becomes harder for young scientists to obtain their first grants.

Thijs Bol’s study offers ‘useful tools’ to deal with the Matthew effect, which the NWO says they were planning on doing anyway. The research financing institution wants to focus more on team science, making the grants less personal.

Translation: Indra Spronk

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