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More factors should be considered when awarding research funding

Opinion — Grants should be awarded to research groups instead of individual researchers. It will strengthen the research teams where the skills of the individual will complement the whole.

In 2018, the rate of success at Danmarks Frie Forskningsfond, one the largest public funds in Denmark, was 17 percent. Seventy-one of grant recipients were above the age of 39.

Last year, an analysis conducted by the Thinktank DEA and CFA showed that 20 percent of recipients are awarded between 75 and 90 percent of the funding made subject to competition. Among other things, these figures prompted the Danish Diabetes Academy to ask to see if there is room for improvement.

And there is. With the solutions devised in cooperation with 46 researchers (most of whom are PhD’s and postdocs) we are not only able to allocate the funding more appropriately but also able to create a tool that can be applied elsewhere, for instance when comparing job applicants for open positions.

Five research cultural challenges and solutions

In total, we have devised proposals for solutions addressing five challenges posed by the current culture in research. A committee under the Danish Diabetes Academy put forward five general research cultural challenges which the participants at the academy’s winter school were asked to solve. Each participant was tasked with finding a solution to one challenge and furthermore take into consideration the opinion of three colleagues. The colleagues ranged from PhD-students to professors. This means the proposed solutions were sourced from a pool of approximately 200 researchers.

At the winter school, we gathered all the proposals. Below we present a selection of the challenges and our proposed ways to overcome them:

More recognition and fairness

How do we ensure that researchers are recognised for all their skills and ensure a fairer allocation of funds?

We suggest removing focus from traditional criteria—the number of scientific articles a given researcher has published, the publications the articles have appeared in, and past success securing funding.

Assessments made on those terms are problematic as they are based on a simplified understanding of what it means to be a researcher. They also neglect to factor in the important role of teamwork. Instead, we suggest including important professional skills such as guidance, mentoring, education, public communication, project management, cooperation, and specialised skills, for instance within the fields of statistics, computer programming, and experimental methodology.

We should not just publish but also cite and acknowledging negative data.
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This approach can be applied in a wider sense as well. It can, for instance, be beneficial in comparing applicants for positions as well as serve as a tool to assess the number of different skillsets within a group of researchers. In that way, the approach can help forge stronger research groups where the skills of the individual complement the whole.

Implementing an evaluation model like the one we propose will take time and requires development and testing. But it can also be used as a standard tool when making new hires and awarding research funds.

Another way to approach the problem of funding allocation is to award funds to groups as opposed to individuals. This will ensure that young researchers are not neglected. They will be recognised for their share in a project and have a more solid foundation to build further research on.

Increase the public’s trust in research

In 2017, a survey conducted by YouGov for the Ministry of Higher Education asked 1,007 Danes about their level of interest in research and their confidence in the way research results were communicated to the public. Eighty-two percent had little to no trust in media outlets reporting correctly on scientific finds, while two out of three respondents had a great deal of confidence in the researchers themselves.

DebatE

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What can we do? First and foremost, it is incredibly important that 1) journalists are equipped to interpret and communicate research correctly in order to combat the spread of misinformation and 2) that children in primary school are taught source criticism, statistics, and scientific methodology.

Researchers and universities have to get involved here as well. We need more direct interaction between researchers and the general public, and researchers should be trained in dealing with journalists. This type of communication training could, for instance, be a mandatory part of any PhD-programme.

Additionally, the individual faculties can organise more open-house event where the public is invited to see the laboratories, learn about current research, and meet the people conducting it.

Publish more negative results

We also discussed other important aspects that must be changed in order to improve the culture of research.

For instance, both scientific journals and researchers tend to emphasise positive results yielded by research. The negative finds, the ones without effect, are rarely mentioned in the articles. This creates a publication bias which could potentially warp our understanding of a given field of research.

We need to start embracing the negative finds. They are also of value to us.

We could start approaching our work with a new model under which we form a hypothesis, generate results and publish the finds, regardless of whether they are positive or negative. And we should not just publish but also cite and acknowledging negative data. If we want to change this culture in our world of research, we need to start by looking differently at our finds, how we react to and talk about the studies that do not confirm the hypothesis.

Read the article here.

All participants in the Danish Diabetes Academy’s winter school 2019 are credited as authors. In the committee—minute takers when the solutions were proposed—are Maria Hauge Pedersen, postdoc, Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Basic Metabolic Research, University of Copenhagen; Sara Lind Jepsen, postdoc, Department of Biomedical Sciences and Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Basic Metabolic Research, University of Copenhagen; Kaja Plucinska, postdoc, Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Basic Metabolic Research, University of Copenhagen; Gretchen Repasky, PhD, head consultant, DanStem, University of Copenhagen. Read the full discussion of the challenges debated at the winter school here.

Translated by Theis Duelund

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