How success breeds success in the sciences

April 27, 2018 by Sam Zuckerman, University of California - Berkeley
Berkeley Haas Assistant Professor Mathijs De Vaan. Credit: UC Berkeley Haas

A small number of scientists stand at the top of their fields, commanding the lion's share of research funding, awards, citations, and prestigious academic appointments. But are they better and smarter than their peers? Or is this a classic example of success breeding success—a phenomenon known as the "Matthew effect"?

Mathijs De Vaan, an assistant professor in the Haas Management of Organizations Group, believes it's clearly the latter. In a paper published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, "The Matthew Effect in Science Funding," De Vaan presents the results of a study of Dutch research grants that shows precisely how much of an advantage early achievement confers, and identifies the reasons behind the boost. De Vaan, who came to Haas in 2015 after earning a PhD in sociology from Columbia University, co-authored the paper with Thijs Bol of the University of Amsterdam and Arnout van de Rijt of Utrecht University.

"To those who have, more will be given"

The term "Matthew " was coined by sociologist Robert Merton in the 1960s to describe how eminent scientists get more recognition for their work than less-well-known researchers—the reference is to the New Testament parable that, to those who have, more will be given. Previous attempts to study this phenomenon have yielded inconclusive results, in part because it is hard to prove that differences in achievement don't reflect differences in work quality.

To get around the quality question, De Vaan and his co-authors took advantage of special features of the main science organization in the Netherlands, IRIS, which awards grants based on a point system. Everyone whose application scores above the point threshold gets money, while everyone below is left out. The authors zeroed in on researchers who came in just above and just below the funding threshold, assuming that, for practical purposes, their applications were equal in quality.

First off, they found the benefits of winning an early-career grant were enormous. Recent PhDs who scored just above the funding threshold later received more than twice as much research money as their counterparts who scored immediately below the threshold. The winners also had a 47 percent greater chance of eventually landing a full professorship. "Even though the differences between individuals were virtually zero, over time a giant gap in success became evident," De Vaan notes.

Status and participation

De Vaan says that two main mechanisms may explain the Matthew effect in . First, winners achieve status that can tilt the playing field in their direction when it comes to funding, awards, and job opportunities. The second is participation, meaning that successful applicants continue seeking grant money, while unsuccessful applicants often give up, withdrawing from future competition.

De Vaan and his coauthors argue that the Matthew effect erodes the quality of scientific research because projects tend to get funded based on an applicant's status, not merit. Groundbreaking work may not get done because the researchers are unknown or too discouraged to compete for funds. They recommend several reforms to the funding process, including limiting information grant application reviewers have about previous awards. They also suggest that rejected applicants learn their scores, which might encourage those just below the threshold to try again.

These findings may apply in many areas beyond science. For example, the Matthew effect may also widen a gulf between winning and losing entrepreneurs in the race for venture capital. Even the Academy Awards may favor big movie industry names over lesser-known talent. "There are a lot of social settings with large amounts of inequality, which could be ripe for the study of the Matthew effect," De Vaan stresses.

Explore further: Inequality in science funding

More information: Thijs Bol et al, The Matthew effect in science funding, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2018). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1719557115

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julianpenrod
1 / 5 (1) Apr 27, 2018
The "Matthew Effect", as stated, is dangerous. Among other things, it assumes that the processes indicated are a natural occurrence, based only on factors mentioned, rather than an arbitrary, driven system. Danger also comes from the suggested form of the "Matthew Effect" essentially endorsing such methods as seeing as connection between things, then deciding which facet one wants to believe causes the other.
Yes, those with a lot of power, money, influences, popularity, do keep getting more. But what causes that?
Is it because gains tend to attract more gains? That's a simplistic answer. It ignores the very real consideration, or deliberately avoids the real consideration, that those who have a lot have worked their way into a strata who all have a lot and act constantly to try to make sure only "the kind of crook they can work with" gets a great deal. The New World Order, those who never lose! Entry, for many, is simply by sex with the rich.
mackita
not rated yet Apr 27, 2018
"To those who have, more will be given"
And money begets money, gravity brings another massive bodies. General law of gradient driven Universe. The money factor could correspond the fine structure constant of economics.

For example there is wide distribution in salaries of postdocs: from 18.000 to 130.000 USD/year. The successful scientists can pay more better postdocs from their grants, which subsequently generate more grant drawing publications.
mackita
not rated yet Apr 27, 2018
In science the Mathew effect is often known as so called bandvagon effect of "fashionable topics". For example 700 scientific papers produced in the wake of a 3-sigma effect in the mass distribution of photon pairs found by ATLAS at the end of 2015 means that basically every HEP theorist around got the message: publish a paper on that thing, and your paper will receive hundreds of citations. Publish seven - and your H-index will progress accordingly, no matter if your articles contain garbage or good ideas.
Da Schneib
3.7 / 5 (3) Apr 27, 2018
One of the risks of being a theorist is hypothesizing in advance of the facts. It is unavoidable if one is to hypothesize. A lack of understanding of this dynamic is endemic among science conspiracy, errr, advocates. Of course, such individuals may wind up subscribing to things like urine therapy if they are not constrained by the facts.
mackita
not rated yet Apr 28, 2018
It's not so difficult to understand it, because economical system of science is based on meritocracy. That means, the more money you'll manage to draw from public into a scientific community, the more you'll get celebrated and appraised. It works also in opposite way: the findings like cold fusion which threat existing grants and jobs places are systematically ignored. In Czech we have proverb for it: "The carps will never drain their own pond".

But the self-gravitating effect of large investments in science makes trouble not only for dissenting cold fusion and antigravity research - but also for all smaller teams.

mackita
not rated yet Apr 28, 2018
[Big Science takes it all](https://www.thegu...unding): [Big science: is it worth the price](http://www.nytime...y.html)? How can we stop [Big Science](https://www.attra...ort.pdf) hoovering up all the research funding? But the researchers [simply love](https://edge.org/...l/25452) huge research facilities, as they do provide them lotta stable jobs. They're also loved with private sector providing their equipment. The people, who are adversely affected with the trend of Big Science are just these ones, who are paying whole this fun, i.e. the tax payers.
mackita
not rated yet Apr 28, 2018
Big science has also largest buzzword problem, because it's most prone to politicization, hypes and false expectations, being least effective from utilitarian perspective. As one could expect, the more we invest into scientific research, the more its results would be distant from down-to Earth everyday exploitation. Above certain limits large investments become a typical perverse incentive: not only they delay the final solution and drain money from potentially more down-to-Earth thus more effective research, but their proponents are even actively suppressing their competition, once it gets more successful. And this is already a pretty dangerous (problem) for future progress.
mackita
not rated yet Apr 28, 2018
Of course, such individuals may wind up subscribing to things like urine therapy if they are not constrained by the facts.
The laws of Big Science really work in symmetrical way. In similar way like huge teams, even the individuals tend to work less effectively, being more susceptible to bias - this time just personal instead of systematical. From this reason the Mathew effect isn't entirely a bad thing: it has positive effect to cooperation and it also serves as a natural rewarding system. The only problem is, it has limited scope of its effectiveness.

In my models the Universe is steady state - if the selfgravitation would become dominant, then the Universe would soon collapse. The law of evolution therefore applies and the most stable arrangement gets preferred. The gravity law is thus balanced by quantum mechanics, which provides that dinosaur objects will never grow too big and they provide food and fuel for these smaller ones. Maybe we should start to learn from it.

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