Will savage pruning fell the tree of knowledge?

October 10, 2003

Anna Fazackerley reports on fears about Labour's plans for research, while Simon Francis recalls the nightmare of trying to fund his PhD study.

Top-up fees may be dominating debate in Parliament, but in university departments the groundswell of opposition to any further concentration of research funding is gathering force. The threat of increased selectivity, spelt out by the higher education white paper and reinforced by higher education minister Alan Johnson at the recent Universities UK conference, is already having a negative impact in some of the less research-intensive institutions.

"People are very nervous about coming to universities that might not have [research] funding in the future," explains Mike Beveridge, deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Plymouth.

"People who were ready to sign up with us have backed out and refused to move," he says. The most obvious route to concentration is to divide the Higher Education Funding Council for England's quality-related research funding between fewer institutions.

But this may also have a knock-on effect on research council funds.

The Office of Science and Technology is consulting on plans to make universities responsible for calculating and recovering the full costs of their research. Research councils will cover 70 per cent of these costs, but it will be up to the institution to find the remainder. Many universities argue this will be impossible without Hefce funding and that they will in effect be prevented from applying for research council funds.

In general the sector is not against concentration as a concept. The UK research funding system is already very selective, and many agree that this has produced some good results. About three-quarters of Hefce's budget goes to about 25 institutions.

And research council funds are markedly concentrated. According to the latest figures available, the Medical Research Council and the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council award almost 70 per cent of their funds to their "top ten" institutions. The other research councils give between 40 per cent and 55 per cent to their own top tens.

But the clear consensus across most universities, lobby groups and science organisations is that any attempt to ramp up that concentration will stifle research.

"The fact that 60 or so institutions had at least one 5* department in the last research assessment exercise proves that it is possible for universities to come from nowhere and be very good," says Peter Cotgreave, director of campaign group Save British Science. "I'm not against selectivity, but it has certainly gone far enough."

But the Royal Society says the erosion of the research base might have started. The organisation's vice-president, John Enderby, argues that there has already been too much concentration. He says: "Research is to do with individuals. If you structure the system so that individuals cannot prosper, on balance you will lose out."

As Cotgreave points out, Nobel prizewinner Sir Paul Nurse had trouble getting a university to take him on at first because the work he was doing was not sufficiently mainstream. He was eventually given an opportunity by the University of East Anglia - which is unlikely to be one of the government's favoured research-intensive institutions. Cotgreave asks whether losing research departments in modern universities would also mean losing potentially brilliant and adventurous researchers such as Nurse.

This is one of the thorniest issues in any research-assessment process.

Measuring the quality of research is one thing, but how do you spot the talent that may not yet have surfaced?

The Coalition of Modern Universities, which represents former polytechnics, argues that institutions that are lower down the pecking order in research-funding terms are often the breeding ground for excellent staff.

And many of those staff will eventually move to the top research-intensive universities.

A common criticism of concentration is that it does not account for change over time. Beveridge says: "I've been at the University of Plymouth for five years, and I was at the University of Bristol for ten years before that. Many groups I knew at Bristol were 3-rated and are now 5*."

He says the government vision for research funding assumes that all groups that are good will always be good and that all those that aren't are unlikely to improve. He argues that this is quite simply wrong.

Michael Driscoll, vice-chancellor of Middlesex University and chair of the CMU, fears that this is giving the wrong message to young researchers in many universities - namely that they are facing a dead end. He says the natural reaction is for them to start trying to move on, and this is causing "a great deal of hand-wringing" in the new universities.

"That's not disloyalty. They don't want a career that makes them some sort of teaching mule," he says. "They want the opportunity not just to teach but also to contribute to the development of ideas in their subject."

Another fear is that financial insecurity will skew the research that is conducted in departments. Driscoll argues that the RAE is already driving academics to be conservative, researching only in "safe" areas that they know will count, and that the situation looks set to worsen.

Rod Hay, dean of Queen's University, Belfast, School of Medicine, admits that political considerations do steer research in his department. "We have had to concentrate our resources on what we perceive to be large coherent groups that are likely to get high RAE scores," he says.

This approach is proving lucrative. Two weeks ago, the government announced Pounds 23 million for a new cancer-research institute at Queen's. But organisations such as UUK are worried that developing areas of research that are not yet seen as a priority, including some areas of medicine, will be erased from the picture.

Indeed, the Council of Heads of Medical Schools estimates that cuts to departments rated 4 or 3a have already cost the discipline more than Pounds 14 million.

David Gordon, dean of Manchester Medical School and head of the CHMS, asks:

"Has the government really thought through what this means? Every medical school in the country has areas of research that are internationally excellent. There's a risk we will lose some of that."

He points out that research in medical schools depends to a great extent on the patients they have. He fears concentrating research in the so-called golden triangle of Oxbridge and London would lead to a sort of research colonialism. "If you have an interesting clinical problem in patients in Manchester, are you going to say someone from a university in the Southeast should look at it?" he asks.

Arts and humanities research does not fit neatly into the concentration model. The Arts and Humanities Research Board allocates 66 per cent of its funding to the top 25 institutions. Its chief executive, Geoffrey Crossick, insists the field needs to maintain 25 research-strong institutions at the very least.

What sets arts and humanities research apart from traditional science is that its costs are not high, so excellent research can spring from universities whose overall research record is poor. But if research is concentrated, the AHRB might not have such a wide variety of institutions to commission from and Crossick fears this could result in stagnation.

Emotions are certainly running high. Academics such as Beveridge are resigned to losing this particular battle. "The general feeling is this government has decided what it will do," he says.

But others are not prepared to concede defeat. "The trend we are seeing is not likely to be reversed overnight. But I don't think people will give up," Driscoll concludes. "There is enormous opposition to this policy."

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