Leader: Time running out for dual support

November 21, 2003

The dual-support system for research has few friends. Politicians who emphasise transparency do not enjoy the sight of money being spent without clear outcomes. In universities, dual support has not resulted in properly funded research. And doing away with it might allow academics the psychological boost of seeing the research assessment exercise die, too.

There would be other advantages in making research funders pay the full costs of the work they support. Universities would have to think even harder about the costs of research, increasing their ability to ask more realistic prices from other funders, including industry, charities, government departments and the National Health Service. The problem is that these bodies have more or less fixed budgets, and they might react to higher costs by reducing the amount of research they fund.

Abolishing dual support would mean pain for some significant players. The Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Department for Education and Skills would not enjoy seeing their budgets shrink. Nor would their devolved equivalents, which would need to be persuaded that the research councils had their best interests at heart despite being based in England.

But discomfort would not be confined to the further reaches of the UK.

Reform would make the high cost of research in London and the rest of southeast England more apparent. The government wants to remove civil servants from London, and it might start to question whether state-funded research needs to be there. The research culture of the big London colleges and medical schools is valuable but, in a world where there are always more quality applications than the available cash can fund, this is not a straightforward issue.

Removing research cash from the funding councils would also mean more demands on research council cash. At the moment, a research council can pay a few thousand pounds of travel money to an academic on sabbatical. The prospect becomes less attractive if the cost is doubled by salary and pension payments under the proposed full-cost regime.

Despite these reservations, the Royal Society is right to point out this week that dual support belongs to an era that has ended. Acknowledging the full costs of research is an essential step towards ensuring that those costs are met. But university staff awaiting the pay rises that the Bett review recommended in 1999 might be cynical about the chances of money becoming available just because a logical case has been made for paying it.

And they should not be too sure that the RAE will go if dual support vanishes. It is too useful to too many people not to continue in some form.

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