The Matthew Effect in NSERC funding

Megan Frederickson studies mutualism, so naturally she is fascinated by positive feedback loops. Positive feedback is a self-reinforcing process, and often very rapidly amplifies the effects of an initially small perturbation. (Remember Bob May’s description of populations of mutualists exploding out of control in “an orgy of mutual benefaction”? That’s positive feedback in action.)

In academia, positive feedback between early and subsequent successes is sometimes called the Matthew Effect, after a parable in the Bible. The Matthew Effect is likely one reason why measures of academic success are highly unequal across scientists. If early successes tend to snowball and increase the chances of future successes, then this runaway process may explain why some scientists are so wildly successful, while other (potentially equally talented or insightful) scientists labour in relative obscurity or end up leaving academia.

A Matthew Effect, if it occurs, will tend to exacerbate initially small or even non-existent differences among individuals in academic merit. Worse yet, the Matthew Effect will also tend to exacerbate any biases in the academic reward system. Thus, if gender or race have even slight influences on early academic success, these effects can build up over the course of long academic careers to result in large gender or racial gaps in later academic success.

Megan Frederickson analyzed the NSERC Awards Database for evidence of the Matthew Effect in NSERC funding. The NSERC Awards Database provides data on all NSERC grants, scholarships, and awards made to scientists at Canadian institutions since 1991. Because it includes 30 years of data, Megan can use the NSERC Awards Database to track awards to thousands of scientists over the course of their careers—in some cases, from winning NSERC Undergraduate Student Researcher Awards as undergraduate students, through M.Sc. and Ph.D. programs funded by NSERC Postgraduate or Canada Graduate Scholarships, through postdoctoral training funded by NSERC Postdoctoral or Banting Fellowships, to Discovery Grants to faculty members, and ultimately to NSERC’s very highest science prizes. Megan will present the results of her analysis, which finds that early NSERC successes do indeed beget later NSERC successes. In other words, her analysis suggests that the Matthew Effect operates in the NSERC funding system.