Chase for research money ups workload and cuts success rate, economists warn

March 25, 2005

Universities are forcing academics to apply for more research council grants in preparation for full economic costing (FEC) rules.

This not only increases the workload of research staff but also cuts success rates, according to heads of university economics departments at this week's Royal Economic Society conference in Nottingham.

Ian Diamond, chief executive of the Economic and Social Research Council, told a meeting of the Conference of Heads of University Research Departments that this changing culture worried him hugely.

"The rational economic thing is to increase the number of applications," he said. "But universities must accept they will end up with a reduction in the success rate."

The science allocation in this month's Budget gave the research councils an extra £120 million.

Professor Diamond said that while there would be no extra money for increasing research volume, 130 institutions would benefit from a lump sum to cover FEC. He said: "This is wholly good news. This is new money going into universities for the same research."

FEC comes into force in September. It will require institutions to calculate their true costs - both direct and indirect - when applying for grants. In return, grants will include an 80 per cent contribution to these costs.

Professor Diamond said that all research councils would be closed to grant applications during August so that they could swap their processing to the new FEC systems. Applications made before then would still be considered under the old system.

The heads were also concerned that economics departments should perform better in the next research assessment exercise. In 2001, just four departments were awarded 5* ratings, with no Scottish departments achieving more than a 4.

John Sutton, president of the Royal Economic Society, said economists were reassured by the new panel chair, David Greenaway of Nottingham University, that the subject would be cross-referenced with other units of assessment.

In particular, since half of economics departments are located in business schools, he said there was relief that Manchester University's Denise Osborn would also sit on both the economics and the business and management panels.

Delegates also heard a paper on the impact of government funding systems, presented by John Beath of St Andrews.

He warned that the trend to increasing rewards for research quality would lead to a reintroduction of the binary divide, with a small research elite while the bulk of institutions concentrated on teaching with solid, if uninspiring, research.

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