Cryptic signals on research funding

March 28, 1997

Humanities academics love to say that life would be better if they had a research council of their own. Perhaps so: but a new report from the House of Commons science and technology committee (page 1) shows that research councils cannot guarantee happiness for researchers.

The problem is friction in the dual support system whereby the research councils and the funding councils share responsibility for supporting research. This means that the research councils can, in effect, spend the funding councils' money by funding a project which inherently requires funding council cash as well.

This would not matter if there was enough money in the system for the funding councils to support research properly as well as to pay for their other priorities, especially teaching. But in practice, the cash the funding councils have is limited, and, more significantly, it is not freely available for supporting funding council decisions.

Although Brian Fender, chief executive of the English funding council, recently told The THES that the Higher Education Funding Council for England has "persistently and vigorously defended the principle of the block grant," the funding councils are bound to deploy their research funds in the light of the research assessment exercise. While higher-rated departments are likely to be the ones whose proposals also attract the attention of research council committees, the correspondence is never going to be exact.

More significant is the conflicting pressure which the funding councils are placing on the system by the RAE and their desire, as Professor Fender puts it, to match funding to the future shape of the university system rather than the present one. This sends signals to universities which are hard to interpret, especially as research councils have their own directed programmes to which researchers wish to respond.

This means that it may be wise for research councils to take over all the research funding now handled by the funding councils, completing a move which began some years ago when they took on their overhead funding. However, transferring this money would threaten to cause as many problems as it solves. Some subjects do not have a research council, and would be bound to lose out if the funding councils had no research money. Worse, the funding councils have just completed a research assessment exercise - would the research councils carry out the next one for their different research areas? And how would they use the findings alongside peer review of research proposals?

The other difficulty is just what the funding councils would look like if their research cash were removed. They would turn into funders only of teaching and of core campus services such as libraries - which are vital research tools.

The science and technology committee has not recommended a wholesale transfer of the research money, but it does find that the existing machinery intended to ensure coordination between research and funding councils seems not to be working. Like many others, the committee is looking to Sir Ron Dearing's higher education review to solve the problem.

But the Council for Science and Technology, the Government's principal adviser on science policy, is preparing the ground for change in its own Dearing evidence. It states that a large increase in indirect cost payments from the research councils is called for, and that this "would appear to require a transfer of resources to them from the funding councils".

The council wants to preserve "individual researchers or teams" as the subjects of funding, not departments or institutions, a position which will not comfort those, from funding councils or university managements, who see it as their role to run the system from the centre.

Implemented carefully, so as to allow ideas which are not fully developed to win limited funding, this is an approach with much to recommend it. The balance Sir Ron's report strikes between defending academic autonomy and insisting on good management and accountability will be one of its defining features: the funding of research will be one of the areas in which these decisions are hardest to get right.

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