It would be wrong to claim that the dual-support system has not served the needs of the UK science and engineering research base well since its inception. But is the separate allocation of research funding now compatible with the emerging research landscape being constructed from the many recent reports, reviews and consultations?
Without initiating some radical changes soon, it is difficult to see how the dual-support system can cope with these challenges and opportunities. The major impediment to developing a funding allocation system is the unhealthy desire to retain the research assessment exercise.
The next RAE, already in the planning stage, provides no reassurance that it will be fit for purpose in this new research environment. From a political perspective, it is hard to see why the government should want to stick with an expensive, burdensome RAE when research councils and other funding bodies have more focused and responsive, internationally benchmarked peer-review mechanisms for identifying and funding high-quality research.
The slavish protectionism shown by advocates of the RAE becomes more bemusing when one considers the fact that it is individuals and groups now commonly working across institutions that are the heart of the creativity associated with cutting-edge research. Surely we need an open debate about the question of who should have responsibility for allocating the funds held by the funding councils?
The possibility of transferring this money elsewhere is by no means a new idea. And opponents may make much of the dangers of shifting to short-term political agendas and undermining the diversity of UK higher education. But these understandable concerns need to be part of the debate that must consider all possible consequences, including the implications for particular disciplinary areas and institutions and the need for interim safeguards while in transition.
My experiences of working in a research council convince me that there is more that all university research funders can do by working in partnership rather than retaining a status quo that lacks cohesion. And there are not many occasions when opportunities for implementing much-needed change present themselves - Gordon Brown has given encouraging signals for the science and engineering base in the next spending review. Whatever monies may be forthcoming, they should be conditional on the development of allocation systems for universities that maintain diversity, ensure greater synergy between the main funding streams, improve the research infrastructure and promote collaboration and innovation across the spectrum of research. Both arms of the existing system should rightly bathe in the glory of past successes. But we cannot delude ourselves that the dual-support system will be adequate for the new century. Significant changes are required, and soon.
Former director of science programmes
Natural Environment Research Council