Tuesday, 27 April 2010

University funding - Research

UK universities all receive public funding from the various funding councils to support their teaching and research, as well as to promote a variety of other activities (such as measures to improve access; knowledge transfer; etc.). The teaching grant largely depends on approved student numbers and their subject mix, while the research grant (generally referred to as the QR funding stream) depends on the results of the most recent Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), specifically RAE2008 at the moment. In addition, of course, individuals and groups seek project-based funding from a wide variety of sources to support their research, so total funding for research is much larger than the QR stream alone.

In Scotland, the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) distributes QR funding to all the institutions that it funds, but there is also another channel for distributing research funds in Scotland; this is called research pooling. The idea is to encourage researchers in different Scottish universities to work together to form research partnerships or alliances, and such schemes have been developed in several subject areas - physics, chemistry, mathematics, economics, and a few others - with each involving a different grouping of institutional partners. Once SFC approves a particular subject-based scheme, it provides funding - usually over five years - to support new academic posts, network co-ordination and management, conferences and workshops, and so on. The aim is to give Scottish research a big boost by achieving critical mass in key research areas, bringing in new highly productive researchers, and where relevant, by building links with policy-makers and the business community. Put like this, it sounds a great idea. But is it really so wonderful?

A few years ago, when the idea of research pooling was first advanced, SFC issued a consultation paper on the subject. Strictly in my personal capacity (i.e. not as a spokesman for my university), I wrote to argue against the proposed policy. I made several points, of which the two key ones were these: (a) there is not much evidence to suggest that large research groups are more productive than small ones (except in a few cases where big equipment needs arise); and (b) even if partnerships were a great idea, it wasn't obvious to me that the best partners would necessarily be other Scottish universities. However, I clearly lost the argument, since the research pooling policy was adopted. At that stage, I naturally supported my own university's efforts to form research partnerships and hence do well from this funding opportunity. After all, once it has been decided what 'game' is to be played, it makes sense for each institution to play it as well as it can.

However, there is another important point here, based on the natural question, where does the money for research pooling come from? To my knowledge, the Scottish government did not increase its allocation to SFC to promote research pooling, so the money must have come from elsewhere in the existing budget. I presume, therefore, that the QR funding stream was top-sliced in some way to provide the money. What this means, though, is that research pooling does not represent any additional research money going into the Scottish universities, but rather a redistribution of funds that would have been paid out anyway. So to convince ourselves that research pooling is a good way of allocating a chunk of research money to Scottish universities, we must have a strong suspicion that merely allocating more through the established QR mechanism would have been less productive in terms of the likely research outcomes. But what reason do we have for believing that? Personally, I'm still struggling to make sense of all this.

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