According to a recent blog post by a biomedical researcher based in the American Midwest, the current scarcity of research funding in the United States has revealed a disturbing trend.
Steve Caplan writes on The Guardian’s Occam’s Corner that labs from prestigious institutions are more likely to receive funding than those from labs that aren’t ranked as highly, even if they have the same intellectual support, space, equipment, and the necessary facilities to produce great research.
He says that while “the notion of hotspots for scientific research in the U.S. is not a new concept,” the tough funding environment is exposing “biases that might not normally surface” in times of economic plenty.
Caplan shares a couple of stories about such biases. In one case, a researcher who formerly worked out of Louisiana could not get good scores on her applications for funding, but when she joined a certain prestigious institution and sent applications for the exact same research from that new location, her applications suddenly started getting excellent scores.
In his own personal brush with this apparent two-tiered funding approach, a skilled student from Caplan’s lab applied for funding from the National Institutes of Health, submitting a student fellowship proposal. The application came back with good scores in almost every area, but was rejected due to a poor “environment” score based on the fact that the student's university, based on total funding, “is only ranked #66 out of 93 medical schools in the US."
Caplan took issue with that rejection, asking in his blog, “what does the ranking of my medical school – a modestly-sized school in a state with a small population – have to do with the availability of equipment and intellectual environment for a student to succeed?” He added that funding per researcher is likely a better measure of a school’s ability than its “total funding” and wonders why a lab that provides everything a student needs for his or her research should receive a poor environment score.
He finishes that there should be just as much variety in institutional research funding as there is in the people applying for funding. Funding should not be restricted to just a few “super-prestigious” universities and institutions, Caplan says.
You can read his full blog post here.
-With files from The Guardian’s Occam’s Corner