Review of the Human Frontier Science Program

February 2019

In 2018, the Human Frontier Science Program Organization (HFSPO) mandated Science-Metrix to provide an external, objective assessment of Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP), specifically over the period of 2009–2018. An Independent Scientific Review Committee oversaw this review and was supported by an independent consultant, Professor Eric Westhof. This report presents the results of the review.

HFSP is an international program of research support, funding frontier research on the complex mechanisms of living organisms. In brief, its mission is to encourage research that is innovative, internationally collaborative while also crossing disciplinary boundaries, and embracing risk. The program also emphasizes support for early career researchers.

The objective of this review was to assess achievement of HFSP’s targeted outcomes over the last decade through a thorough examination of the activities of its three funding schemes. The review also sought to determine the added value of HFSP compared to what could be achieved through national funding for the life sciences. The review team also looked for insight into the key characteristics (or predictors) of success of the funded projects. The HFSP award selection process was also assessed to identify its strengths and weaknesses, and potential areas of improvement.

This review of HFSP drew on several lines of evidence: a bibliometric analysis, e-surveys, interviews and case studies. More specifically, the bibliometric analysis comprised comparative analyses of publications acknowledging HFSP support and longitudinal analyses of HFSP’s effect. These analyses were used to address questions related to the achievement of outcomes and to measure the extent to which the impact of HFSP lasted beyond the term of the awards. For the comparative analysis, two data sets were built:

  1. To analyze HFSP publications in the “life sciences in general”, a data set of world papers was randomly selected from the core subfields in which 90% of papers acknowledging HFSP had been published (22 out of 102 subfields).
  2. To analyze the performance of HFSP relative to other funders when they supported work similar to that of HFSP, a data set comprising papers citing at least two HFSP papers was created. The requirement for papers to rely strongly on HFSP work (i.e., citing at least two HFSP papers) enabled retrieving papers covering subject matters similar to those of HFSP papers. Accordingly, this data set is referred to as the “life sciences targeted by HFSP scholars”. Because of the way it was constructed, it also informs on the research that was inspired by earlier HFSP work.

This review demonstrated that HFSP funds highly interdisciplinary research for which other funding opportunities appear limited. In the interviews and the survey, reviewers and awardees emphasized that HFSP represented a rare funding opportunity to support research at the frontier of the life sciences that combines collaborative, international and interdisciplinary features. The bibliometric analysis also showed that HFSP was superior to most of its comparators in funding projects that brought together outstanding teams of researchers capable of generating truly interdisciplinary knowledge to advance the understanding of fundamental mechanisms in basic research.

Read the report [PDF]

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