Awkward allocations

January 15, 2015

I take issue with the headline attributing a claim of “ineffectiveness” against the Economic and Social Research Council to me (“REF analysis highlights ESRC’s ineffective grant allocation, says scholar”, News, 8 January). The block grant allocation is not “ineffective” but “procedurally problematic”. However, the article rightly raises important issues about the appropriate procedures and criteria used by research councils in allocating block grant funding such as the new ESRC Impact Acceleration Accounts.

The concern is that under pressure to save costs, research councils are preferring simplicity of administration over appropriately tailored judgements of excellence. This includes funding smaller numbers of large awards at the expense of large numbers of smaller awards – which may potentially yield more cost-effective impacts – on the logic that the latter model costs more to administer.

The termination of the peer-reviewed Knowledge Exchange Opportunities Scheme in favour of IAA block grants has resulted in the replacement of an open and competitive funding stream with a closed allocation to selective institutions on an uncertain logic subject to no peer review. This is a worrying trend, more so in the light of the research excellence framework results, which suggest that impact excellence in the social sciences often lies outside of those institutions awarded IAAs.

Contrary to the claims of the “spokesman for the ESRC”, REF assessments were not solely concerned with “who has historically produced good impact”, but also included a significant judgement on the quality of institutional strategies for securing impact excellence in the future via the “impact template”, which constituted 20 per cent of the impact score.

More generally, I believe that the REF results and the burden of the exercise on the academic community should prompt a wide-ranging reassessment of research funding in the UK and the relationship between the two sides of the dual support system.

Adam Crawford
Pro-dean for research and innovation
Faculty of Education, Social Sciences and Law
University of Leeds

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