Scots may link cash to priority research subjects

March 22, 1996

The Scottish Higher Education Funding Council is considering giving priority to certain subjects in its future research funding formula despite misgivings among higher education institutions.

SHEFC has been consulting widely on how its funding methods can reflect the priorities determined by the Government's Technology Foresight Programme, and has now published its action plan for implementing the Foresight's first stage.

At present it allocates most of its recurrent research grant on the basis of volume, quality, and cost, but does not prioritise certain subjects.

While industry was generally in favour of prioritising in this way, there was widespread opposition within higher education institutions. Universities and colleges argued that it would impoverish other subjects and hamper interdisciplinary work.

Institutions also doubted SHEFC's capacity to develop an adequate mechanism for giving some subjects priority over others. While SHEFC agrees these are sound concerns, it says there is potential value in prioritising.

Once the Foresight Programme is under way and the needs of the sector are better known, the priority factor might be used to reduce commitment to old technologies. It could also protect subjects such as arts and humanities, which do not attract research council funds, if they are put at risk by the new funding formula.

Both academics and external bodies have stressed that these subjects have a role to play in the Foresight Programme through such areas as biomedical science ethics, product design, virtual reality, relationships with other cultures and social aspects of change.

The Scottish funding council is also considering whether to give greater weight in its formula to success in attracting external research grants.

It has itself earmarked Pounds 5 million seedcorn funding for research development, and plans to develop a grant scheme by the autumn to allow institutions to bid for funds to start up or reshape research which meets Foresight needs.

SHEFC was told firmly in the responses that it was not the main player in assessing the needs and influencing the direction of the Scottish economy, and that it would need external advice on distributing these development funds.

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