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Devolved research funding in universities – a counter-narrative

Unfunded research could paradoxically add value to an institution’s output, profile and impact. Rosalind Edwards asks what lessons European initiatives can offer

Rosalind Edwards's avatar
12 Oct 2023
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Research that academics conduct without a grant from a funding council can be symbolically, culturally and even financially beneficial to universities, yet this unfunded research doesn’t seem to be valued institutionally. Research in the sector often appears to be as much about revenue generation as it is about generating knowledge. In Britain, unfunded research has even been termed a “budget deficit” for universities’ research income streams, and it can lack prestige when it comes to institutional systems of assessment and promotion.

Success rates are not distributed equally, either, not institutionally nor among academics. Analyses show disadvantages in research and development funding among regions and institutions, and also that UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) research funds are disproportionately granted to white, male, non-disabled academics. There are calls to remedy this situation; the question is how.

Below, I consider two, linked, potential ways forward – valuing unfunded research; and devolving research funding, in the context of the UK’s planned 2021-27 Research Excellence Framework (REF), with its proposed shift of emphasis from individual outputs on to the contributions of institutions and from disciplines towards dynamic and inclusive research environments.

The value of unfunded research

Academics can undertake research without external funding. Recently, I set out to find out why they do this and to consider if it really is of little value to institutions.

Academics viewed conducting unfunded research not as potential income loss for their institution, but as a fundamental part of being an academic who was doing their contracted job – where a 20 per cent to 40 per cent research allocation may be built into employment conditions. Some did not need much in the way of financing for their unfunded work, especially where it involved secondary statistical analyses, existing lab equipment or online archival investigation. For others, the research was self-funded (rather than being unfunded). They met the costs of travel, overnight accommodation and other expenses themselves. In whichever case, considerable time was invested outside working hours. From this perspective, rather than income lost to university budgets, unfunded research could be seen as a drain on personal resources of time and money.

Overwhelmingly, the academics felt that the research needed doing and that research was an intrinsic element of being an academic. Their commitment to being an intellectually driven scholar who was making a contribution to knowledge was often combined with an aim to identify research priorities that were socially useful and unconstrained by some external agenda. Unfunded research might be the only way of testing theoretical and methodological boundaries, or seeing through projects that would benefit communities where no funder would be interested. On a more self-interested level, conducting unfunded research also boosted research profiles and produced outputs that their institution could submit to the UK’s REF.

Indeed, the processes and products of unfunded research are also of potential benefit to universities. Such efforts contribute to their national and international standing and reputation for scholarship, for example, and culturally they can contribute to the institutional research environment as well as feeding through into teaching and one-off courses.

There are financial returns to the university, too. Research motivated by the thrill of knowledge can result in original, significant, rigorous and peer-reviewed research publications for REF submission. Likewise, the commitment to making a social difference through unfunded research can result in impact case studies for submission to the REF. These can reap returns for the institution in REF-allocated funding.

Yet unfunded research remains subject to the drawbacks of lack of prestige and resources. Rather than calculating how much unfunded research costs institutions, higher education could work out and acknowledge how much value (in all senses of the word) it brings. Some initiatives regarding devolved research funding seek to do this.

Devolving research funding

Devolvement and redistribution of research funding is championed at regional and place-based levels to level up economic activity and productivity, keyed into local networks and founded on innovations and long-term orientations tailored to an area. But other proposals for devolvement place faith in trajectories of knowledge and motivations such as those pursued by academics who invest their own time and money in unfunded research. They focus on academics with the intrinsic impetus to pursue intellectual scholarship and community benefit.

The Dutch Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences has proposed a model of university-administered “unfettered” rolling grants that go directly to academics to pursue their own research priorities, operating alongside competitive funding. Allocations would be linked into institutional assessment systems and provided on a sliding scale depending on career stage, with the aim of stimulating continuous lines of groundbreaking research.

In another vein, rather than an institutionally assessed allocation, the University of Ghent recently agreed an internal model of basic research funding, in balance with a competitive system, where research-active academics receive an annual amount. Academics can use their allocation individually, merge their allocations and pursue imaginative and experimental joint research or fund a doctoral researcher. A universal basic research grant that enables risky, unconventional and curiosity-driven work is important in stimulating diversity of both coverage and researchers.

Devolved funding initiatives do not necessarily rule out competitive funding for projects, especially for large-scale, international or lab-based initiatives. But they do offer a way to way forward in the face of often fruitless costs of writing, reviewing and evaluating project applications, and administering the funding system. There also is a paucity of evidence that competitive funding guarantees greater innovation and impact. This is especially pertinent considering grant receipt inequalities for marginalised researchers, and that academics are putting their own time and money into unfunded initiatives that benefit their institutions.

Paradoxically, such a focus on secure funding for individual academics could contribute to the proposed upcoming REF focus on institutional investments in people, culture and environment, as well as output contributions to knowledge, and engagement and impact.

Rosalind Edwards is a professor of sociology at the University of Southampton.

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