A study of cumulative advantages in funding allocation


The Matthew effect is one of the most widely discussed phenomena in research funding. Coined in 1968 by Robert K. Merton, and developed by Harriet Zuckerman, the term comes from the Parable of the Talents in the Bible, and can be summed up as “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” In a scientific context, Merton defined it as “the accruing of greater increments of recognition for particular scientific contributions to scientists of considerable repute and the withholding of such recognition from scientists who have not yet made their mark.” 

Credit: Vincent Traag, CWTS-Leiden
Merton, Robert K. (1968). “The Matthew Effect in Science”. Science. 159 (3810)

Recent studies have highlighted complex dynamics at play in Matthew effects. The MATTHEW project will use data from RoRI partners to explore whether review processes are functioning as expected or are influenced by inappropriate factors. This work will support efforts to improve diversity and inclusion in research cultures, and is relevant to ongoing debates over the effects of funding on research career trajectories.

We propose to replicate two recent studies of Matthew effects using data from multiple funders. 

The first study (Bol et al., 2018) finds that researchers who have early success in winning funding have a greater chance of accumulating subsequent grants and continuing an academic career, compared to researchers who narrowly miss out on funding. This calls into question the effectiveness of funding allocation processes and their effects on research cultures, as researchers with equal potential may not be able to continue to contribute if they do not secure funding in often highly competitive processes.

The second study (Wang et al., 2019) suggests that applicants who are initially unsuccessful yet persist, reapply and then receive funding go on to outperform applicants who were successful on their first attempt. This has been dubbed the ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ effect. 

These findings call for further research, but may plausibly co-exist. The two studies use data from different funders in different domains and research systems.

Our MATTHEW project aims to improve the reliability and relevance of the literature on grant funding in two ways. First, using the same data to replicate the two studies will ensure a consistency to the comparison of the effects found in the two original studies; second, analysis of a range of grant instruments from multiple funders will allow for the analysis of diverse effects across multiple settings, and may corroborate original results as well as providing a unifying explanation of the findings of both studies.

This project is also a further pilot of the capabilities of sharing data through RoRI’s Funder Data Platform (FDP) in this new phase of RoRI’s work, during which the FDP will be hosted by the Danish Centre for Studies in Research and Research Policy (CFA) at Aarhus University.

Project team

Vincent Traag, CWTS-Leiden and Senior Research Fellow, RoRI

Emer Brady, CFA-Aarhus and Research Fellow, RoRI

Carter Bloch, CFA-Aarhus and Senior Research Fellow, RoRI

Kwun Hang (Adrian) Lai, PhD researcher, CWTS-Leiden

Partners and steering group

The MATTHEW project was initiated by CWTS-Leiden and Novo Nordisk Foundation. Its steering group is chaired by Gert V. Balling, Senior Impact Partner at Novo Nordisk Foundation and Co-Chair, RoRI Partnership Board.

Project partners include: 

Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR)

FNR-Luxembourg National Research Fund

FWF-Austrian Science Fund

Health Research BC

Novo Nordisk Foundation

Wellcome Trust

Research Team

Timeline and outputs

The MATTHEW project will run for one year to June 2024. An initial working paper describing the results of the replication studies will be followed by an academic publication.