The Matthew Effect in Science Funding


A classic thesis is that scientific achievement exhibits a “Matthew effect”: Scientists who have previously been successful are more likely to succeed again, producing increasing distinction. We investigate to what extent the Matthew effect drives the allocation of research funds. To this end, we assembled a dataset containing all review scores and funding decisions of grant proposals submitted by recent PhDs in a €2 billion granting program. Analyses of review scores reveal that early funding success introduces a growing rift, with winners just above the funding threshold accumulating more than twice as much research funding (€180,000) during the following eight years as nonwinners just below it. We find no evidence that winners’ improved funding chances in subsequent competitions are due to achievements enabled by the preceding grant, which suggests that early funding itself is an asset for acquiring later funding. Surprisingly, however, the emergent funding gap is partly created by applicants, who, after failing to win one grant, apply for another grant less often.

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences