Big Science vs. Little Science: How Scientific Impact Scales with Funding

PLoS One. 2013 Jun 19;8(6):e65263. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0065263. Print 2013.


is it more effective to give large grants to a few elite researchers, or small grants to many researchers? Large grants would be more effective only if scientific impact increases as an accelerating function of grant size. Here, we examine the scientific impact of individual university-based researchers in three disciplines funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). We considered four indices of scientific impact: numbers of articles published, numbers of citations to those articles, the most cited article, and the number of highly cited articles, each measured over a four-year period. We related these to the amount of NSERC funding received. Impact is positively, but only weakly, related to funding. Researchers who received additional funds from a second federal granting council, the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, were not more productive than those who received only NSERC funding. Impact was generally a decelerating function of funding. Impact per dollar was therefore lower for large grant-holders. This is inconsistent with the hypothesis that larger grants lead to larger discoveries. Further, the impact of researchers who received increases in funding did not predictably increase. We conclude that scientific impact (as reflected by publications) is only weakly limited by funding. We suggest that funding strategies that target diversity, rather than "excellence", are likely to prove to be more productive.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Biomedical Research / economics*
  • Biomedical Research / organization & administration
  • Biomedical Research / statistics & numerical data
  • Biomedical Research / trends
  • Canada / epidemiology
  • Financial Support*
  • Financing, Government / classification
  • Financing, Government / economics
  • Financing, Organized / classification
  • Financing, Organized / statistics & numerical data
  • Financing, Organized / trends
  • Humans
  • Publications* / classification
  • Publications* / economics
  • Publications* / statistics & numerical data
  • Research Personnel / economics
  • Social Change

Grant support

This study was funded by an Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program grant, and a work-study grant at the University of Ottawa to JMF, and a (mid-sized) grant from NSERC to DJC. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.