11th July 2012: Star Academics & Research Funding

Superstar economics rules Hollywood and the art world. In academia, it means that a small group of academics are heavily cited, get ‘fast-track’ promotions, and receive competitive research grants. The United Kingdom’s Wellcome Trust has reinforced superstar economics and its ‘winner-takes-all’ dynamic in a recent decision:


To the consternation of many, Walport’s charity has abolished all funding for research projects or programmes. Instead this cash now goes to individuals, with far less prescription about what they do with it. “Budgets are often larger for investigators as we want to fund people generously to pursue new directions without restraint,” [Kevin] Moses explains.


Wellcome Trust’s decision means significant fallout in academia. Early and mid-career researchers face barriers to research funding. Collaborative research teams are minimised. Publication track records on your curriculum vitae become more important. The decision strengthens individual researchers and their cross-institutional performance ‘portability’ (which leads to the ‘poaching’ of leading researchers and their teams as an answer to the ‘make or buy’ decision). It also cuts the funding that institutions extract from successful grants — thus undermining the strategy of relying on competitive research grant income as a variable cashflow to diversify from student fees and government funding. Wellcome’s decision has parallels with the rise-and-fall of the independent producer in Hollywood, from 1967-75, during the demise and renewal of the Hollywood studio system.


Research Funding Limited To Star Academics (The Guardian)