Improving research systems: how to link funding and performance

Concentrating resources in well-performing teams can bring about new products and ideas. © Fotolia, tilialucida

Concentrating resources in well-performing teams can bring about new products and ideas and thus enhance benefit to societies. In the last decade, European countries with research performance-based funding (RPBF) systems in place have consistently improved the quality of the research output, according to a new JRC report. There is however no single recipe for linking funding to performance.

Some of the well performing countries that haven’t applied the RPBF system have alternative systems to concentrate resources, including binary university systems where higher education is provided in both research universities and applied science universities.

In addition, the lack of improvement in research output and incentives in countries without a RPBF system in place can partially be explained with relative underfunding and/or with scientists opting to move abroad for better conditions.

To help national authorities identify relevant practices, the report analyses the different approaches across the EU 28, selected associated and third countries and identifies a number of issues which they should take into account when desgining, evaluating and implementing these funding mechanisms.

link funding and performance
Overview of the different approaches in the EU28 for the allocation of Performance Based funding (full explanatory notes available on pg 22 of the report) © EU, 2016

It finds that RPBF systems mainly target the increased production of high-impact scientific publications. Research-based funding systems can also stimulate university patenting, contract research, output of PhD degrees, gender balance among academic staff and internationalisation.

The findings show that decisions to implement the RPBF system should include a cost assessment, weighted with the potential benefits. Experts highlight the importance of considering the potential unintended consequences of different incentives, indicators and methodologies and advice for the need to monitor the effects and impact of the system. They also recommend involving stakeholders in the decision of the indicators and think about the timing, as there might be some degree of institutional resistance to establish an RPBF system if no additional funding is foreseen.

The report highlights that a good practice is a gradual implementation of RPBF to avoid shocks to the system and allow for strategic long-term planning.

How to assess performance?

When it comes to assessing research performance, some countries use peer review or bibliometrics, while others combine the two elements. Stakeholders prefer the peer review, but its limitations include relatively high running cost and lack of timeliness.

Although cheaper, less intrusive and potentially more “objective”, bibliometric assessments are seen with some suspicion by the academic community. The perception is that bibliometrics can generate perverse incentives and “gaming” by academics. Some funding systems inform their peer review assessments with bibliometric analyses to mitigate some of the drawback of either approach.

Mutual Learning Exercise

The report will feed into the Mutual Learning Exercise on performance-based funding of public research organisations planned under Horizon 2020 Policy Support Facility in 2016. This exercise aims at informing Member States that are improving or that will improve the design, implementation and evaluation of their funding allocation systems for public research organisations.