22 September 2022

Scientific community discriminates its youngsters

Recent research showed that scientific reports are more easily published if their authors are well known and respected scientists - e.g. Nobel laureates. The results reported by an Austrian group showed that only 23 percent of reviewer´s recommended rejection on manuscripts, when a prominent researcher was the only author shown, whereas 48 percent did so when authors were not known and 65 percent if the only author given was a little-known person. The evaluated manuscripts were the same for all three groups.

For me, as a well known and old scientist in my field, but also a supervisor of young talented students, the figures given above are just disgusting. That is because it shows the hurdles for success to be higher for young people. And even worse: the Austrian study seems to imply that old veterans might easily publish less important findings or even rubbish.

The scientific evaluation of manuscripts is basically simple. The peer reviewer of a scientific publication is another scientist in the same field, who is expected to check that the methodology is adequate to the problem and the evidence obtained is correctly interpreted. And that the findings add sufficiently to the scientific understanding of the topic addressed. 

The bias observed by Austrians obviously affect also funding organizations. If the applicant is well known and has a long record of scientific success, he probably gets funding much more likely to his applications than a young researcher with minor achievements. 

Therefore it was interesting to learn, that some funding organizations - such as the British Academy or the Swiss National Science Foundation - have taken advantage of a lottery in their funding decisions. That is, if several project proposals are very close to each others - but there is not enough money to fund all - a lottery will be used to select the ones getting funded.

That should be beneficial to the regeneration of scientific community, and provide young innovative researchers better chances to get funded. After saying that, even this kind of a lottery will not provide equal chances to youngsters, but at least it would reduce the gap to us - the veterans already going towards the sunset of our brilliance. 

All in all, I suggest that at least part of the European Union research funding would implement lottery in its research funding process. For example, in the Framework Programs for applied research - where application process often has two rounds of evaluation - the second round including only top applications rated by evaluators, could be replaced by a lottery. 

And nationally, I would be happy to see Academy of Finland funding to be partly replaced by a lottery. The principle could be simple: in the first step, all applications rated as "outstanding" by expert panels would be provided funding, and thereafter the lottery would be used - instead of the Research Councils - to pick up proposals to be funded from applications rated by the expert panels up to a level of "excellent". 

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