Winners and losers

April 23, 2004

Manfredi La Manna is right to query the general rationale for the concentration of research resources in a few institutions (Letters, April 16). While there may be particular disciplines where there exist clear economies of scale or scope, it is very doubtful whether this applies in the majority of cases. In our own subject, economics, most top-rated work involves applying sophisticated statistical techniques to large datasets that are usually produced by the Office of National Statistics.

Such work can be done at a desktop computer anywhere in the country. There are extremely active researcher networks that enable new work to be presented and discussed whether you are based in London or, in La Manna's case, St Andrews.

The end result of the concentration of funding council money, however, will be that most funded economic research will be conducted at the London School of Economics, Warwick or a handful of other centres. Why? Surely our large higher education sector must be better served by having significant research going on in each major university to feed into the teaching and scholarly environments where most of our students are educated.

The current research assessment exercise policy is a distant echo of the "picking winners" policy of the 1960s and 1970s that led prime minister Harold Wilson to encourage the merger of large sections of British manufacturing in the vain hope of producing national champions. We may look back on it as a similarly fruitless endeavour that occupied too much of the time of our benighted universities.

Len Shackleton
Westminster Business School

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