What's the cash for?

August 25, 2006

Max Travers is right that discussing the merits of the research assessment exercise and the proposed metrics system will not solve the problems of research (Letters, August 18). The debate about what method to use for handing out money should not be attempted until everyone is clear about what the money is for.

Historically, the block grant from the funding councils was supposed to pay the research element of academics' salaries and provide the base for what in the sciences and engineering was called the "well-found laboratory" - an environment in which people had time to think and to try out new ideas before rushing off to a research council for a grant. As the research councils' budgets grew much more rapidly than those of the funding councils, this became impossible and universities had to use their block grants to plug the ever-growing funding black hole generated because research council grants did not meet the full costs of the projects they supported.

Now we are moving towards the research councils paying full economic costs, the block grant from the funding councils could be freed up for other things. Official publications from government departments and agencies give different definitions of what these things might be. Some mention blue-skies research, others do not, while research training is included in some but not all.

Unless we agree about what the money is for, there is little point in having a debate about the Byzantine details of different methods of handing it out.

Peter Cotgreave. Campaign for Science and Engineering in the UK

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