Research Funding – A Modest Proposal

This morning, the Minister for Universities, Jo Johnson, made a speech in which, among other things, he called for research funding to be made simpler. Under the current “dual funding” system, university researchers receive money through two main routes: one is the Research Excellence Framework (REF) which leads to so-called “QR” funding allocations made via the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE); and the other is through research grants which have to be applied for competitively from various sources, including the Seven Research Councils.

Part of the argument why this system needs to be simplified is the enormous expense and administrative burden of the Research Excellence Framework.  Many people have commented to me that although they hate the REF and accept that it’s ridiculously expensive and time-consuming, they didn’t see any alternative. I’ve been thinking about it and thought I’d make a suggestion. Feel free to shoot it down in flames through the box at the end, but I’ll begin with a short introduction.

Those of you old enough to remember will know that before 1992 (when the old `polytechnics’ were given the go-ahead to call themselves `universities’) the University Funding Council – the forerunner of HEFCE – allocated research funding to universities by a simple formula related to the number of undergraduate students. When the number of universities suddenly increased this was no longer sustainable, so the funding agency began a series of Research Assessment Exercises to assign research funds (now called QR funding) based on the outcome. This prevented research money going to departments that weren’t active in research, most (but not all) of which were in the ex-Polytechnics. Over the years the apparatus of research assessment has become larger, more burdensome, and incomprehensibly obsessed with short-term impact of the research. Like most bureaucracies it has lost sight of its original purpose and has now become something that exists purely for its own sake.

It is especially indefensible at this time of deep cuts to university core funding that we are being forced to waste an increasingly large fraction of our decreasing budgets on staff-time that accomplishes nothing useful except pandering to the bean counters.

My proposal is to abandon the latest manifestation of research assessment mania, i.e. the REF, and return to a simple formula, much like the pre-1992 system,  except that QR funding should be based on research student (i.e. PhD student) rather than undergraduate numbers. There’s an obvious risk of game-playing, and this idea would only stand a chance of working at all if the formula involved the number of successfully completed research degrees over a given period .

I can also see an argument  that four-year undergraduate students (e.g. MPhys or MSci students) also be included in the formula, as most of these involve a project that requires a strong research environment.

Among the advantages of this scheme are that it’s simple, easy to administer, would not spread QR funding in non-research departments, and would not waste hundreds of millions of pounds on bureaucracy that would be better spent actually doing research. It would also maintain the current “dual support” system for research, if that’s  a benefit.

I’m sure you’ll point out disadvantages through the comments box!

9 Responses to “Research Funding – A Modest Proposal”

  1. The amount per PhD-student would be so large (of order 50k per student per year?) that the incentive to boost PhD numbers merely to get funding would be enormous.

    If the aim is to determine who is research active, then isn’t the obvious thing to do — at least in the natural sciences — to just count papers in decent journals and citations to them (weighting both by the fraction of the paper’s authors at a given department). That’s very quick and easy.

    That is not immune to game playing, but there are already big incentives to publish lots and get cited, so it wouldn’t change much.

    • telescoper Says:

      I doubt if it would be as much as that per student in physics, but it would of course vary a lot with discipline. Also note that it would be *completed* PhDs that count

      • But we get given research council studentships based on a formula that takes grant income into account, so isn’t this going round in circles? Would PGCE count – is postgraduate training for people going into teaching is very important enough to warrant funding? Physics and astronomy have relatively few PhD students per academic, but we give our students a lot of time and attention. Under this scheme, wouldn’t all the money go to sciences with massive PhD’s programs?

  2. Phillip Helbig Says:

    You were wondering what to do when your current term as Head of School is up. Why not Minister of Education (or whatever it’s called)?


  3. What you propose is similar to what was in part used in Australia in the 90’s. Not sure if this system is still used. One effect was that
    departments usually made an even greater effort to get doctoral students to graduate, for if one didn’t the department would lose $80,000. If more than say two students did not make it in within a year or two of each other, than the bean counters in Canberra would inquire what was going on.

  4. […] оf applicant’s publication record, аѕ detailed in thе applicant’s CV. -The merit оf thе research proposal, including itѕ innovativeness аnd importance tо thе identified industry оr field. -Strength […]

  5. This does presuppose that the vast majority of valid research is done by PhD students, which I’m not sure is actually the case, and certainly isn’t the case across all universities. I suspect that a system like this will benefit the big research universities, those that have well-established post-graduate research structures, but will disadvantage the smaller universities or those where the majority, or much, of the research is done by the teaching staff. This would also mean that support for staff research, or indeed for any kind of research that wasn’t being undertaken by a PhD student, would disappear. Long term it would create a whole heap of problems, including leading to a lack experienced researchers to train the PhD students.

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