Don’t think about an elephant.
I confidently predict a resulting increase in thoughts about elephants among readers of this article, with a number of people even starting to think through the details of potential elephants: tusks, trunks, swishy tails...
Thinktank reports rely on similarly unsophisticated powers of suggestion. They can plant an idea in the public mind. Government policymaking is increasingly outsourced to thinktanks. A wacky idea can start to look less wacky once it has been the subject of a helpful thinktank report and consequent stories in the press, and once ministers can point to a sober report in their speech on the wacky idea.
The Institute of Economic Affairs, which bills itself as a free-market thinktank, has today published a report calling for the abolition of the research excellence framework, used by the funding councils to allocate an annual £1.6 billion of quality-related research (QR) funding to UK universities. The authors argue that the REF “uses significant resources and distorts resource allocation within the higher education sector away from teaching and knowledge dissemination” and that the UK should “gradually move away from institution-based funding towards project-based funding via the research councils”.
They add: “More generally, there is a strong case for reducing the total amount of government subsidy for research and expecting universities to generate their own funds for research and scholarship or support it by reducing overhead costs.”
So that’s a fair chunk, or perhaps all, of the £1.6 billion QR funding on the chopping block.
Reducing the roles of the UK’s funding councils in research “could also lead in the medium term to their abolition”, the authors also say.
Universities would argue that the REF provides a fair way to allocate research. It also helps them demonstrate to government and the public the social and economic impact of research funded by the taxpayer, they would say.
To me, the report looks rushed: it’s only five pages long. What is interesting is not so much what is in the report, but why it has been published now.
With budget cuts of up to 40 per cent coming over the course of this Parliament, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is looking for ideas on big savings (it has already found a £2.5 billion annual saving with the announcement that student maintenance grants will be abolished). As yet, the government has not indicated whether the research budget will continue to be ring-fenced.
The IEA report’s two authors are academics: Philip Booth, professor of insurance and risk management at Cass Business School, and Len Shackleton, professor of economics at the University of Buckingham. But still, the IEA would have to go a long way down the list of society’s ills before they fell upon the system for allocating QR funding.
Perhaps someone in government gave the IEA a nudge and suggested they have a think about the idea of scrapping the REF?
I have no idea who that would be. But it’s interesting that Sajid Javid, the business secretary, who is responsible for higher education and research, is a strong supporter of the IEA.
Javid, who has a portrait of Margaret Thatcher on the wall of his office in BIS, gave a speech last month at the IEA’s 60th anniversary dinner, describing how he “joined” the thinktank while a student at the University of Exeter. He said the IEA “both reflected and deeply influenced my views, helping to develop the economic and political philosophy that guides me to this day”.
It seems unlikely that many people in government would entertain ideas about scrapping the REF. And George Osborne has a made science a “personal priority”.
Nevertheless, it’s of note that a thinktank that helped develop the business secretary’s philosophy is calling for the abolition of the REF and for cuts from QR funding – all at a time when the business secretary is thinking about how to find cuts.