Funding focus would shrink UK research 1

December 4, 2008

The recommendation of Paul Wellings to concentrate research funding on a small elite of postgraduate research universities overlooks an important aspect of scholarship, namely that it involves more than just PhD student supervision ("Funding focus on research elite set to split sector", November).

In my own case, it includes refereeing papers (29 this year alone), examining PhD students (most recently at University College London), reviewing grants, organising conferences and being a member of editorial boards of journals. It also includes running academic societies and serving on research council boards.

If all PhD supervision is to become the monopoly of a small number of universities, who is going to do all of this related scholarly/academic work? It can hardly be done credibly by those who are not allowed to contribute to scholarship via PhD supervision, so can all of it - all of it - be done by elite researchers in chosen universities? Has anyone - including Wellings - thought about what is involved?

In reality, Wellings' proposal would rapidly come up against the law of unintended consequences, and would cause the volume of academic activity within the UK to shrink at a stroke. Many fewer conferences would be organised, reviewing of papers and grants would, at best, take much longer, the pool of available PhD examiners would diminish, and so on. Could Wellings tell us who would benefit from this scenario?

I have no objection to the current state of affairs, in which the Pareto principle applies: roughly 20 per cent of universities produce about 80 per cent of the PhDs. But to extrapolate this to the situation where most universities produce no PhD graduates at all is going too far.

Like much of what passes for "vision" on the subject of research in universities, this is actually a thinly disguised attempt to protect the strong from the weak. As such, its implementation would be catastrophic, and not only for the majority of UK academics.

John Nicholson, University of Greenwich.

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