Dark cloud across blue skies

September 26, 2003

The loss of Hefce funds will inhibit innovative UK research, argues Rama Thirunamachandran.

It has been argued that dismantling the dual-support system for research and removing the funding stream provided by the Higher Education Funding Council for England would offer a more equal basis for support.

Yet such views ignore the historical reasons for setting up the system in the first place. Removing Hefce money would seriously affect the stability and vitality that sustains the UK research effort.

The quality-related funding (QR) provided by Hefce gives institutions and researchers the ability to pursue blue-skies research, reflecting their own interests and priorities. This freedom is an essential component of a dynamic research culture. It provides the basis for future discoveries as well as the capacity to apply for project grants from the research councils to carry forward new ideas.

Some 43 higher education institutions in England receive QR grants of more than £5 million, indicating that support for excellent research is widely distributed. Institutions themselves are best able to judge the strengths and direction of their research. QR funding support for national and international research, and capability funding to support emerging areas, gives institutions the confidence to plan over a five- or six-year period between the assessments of their work. Stability of funding enables them to employ a body of researchers and support staff on permanent rather than fixed-term contracts and gives them the flexibility to respond quickly to new ideas and emerging areas of work.

Removing QR funding would put all this at risk. It would mean that virtually all research in our universities would be driven by the needs and priorities of external project funders - public and private. This would be disastrous in the longer term because it would undermine the capacity to carry out blue-skies research and invest in infrastructure.

At the moment, we have a system that enables important new fields of inquiry to be opened up through seedcorn funding provided by QR. This might lead to the next round of fundamental breakthroughs. External funders of research cannot be expected to predict all the areas in which these breakthroughs might occur.

With the possible exception of a few institutions with very large research incomes, it is unlikely that many vice-chancellors would wish to forgo the stability and flexibility of QR in return for the uncertainties of project funding. Some commentators have pointed to the experience of the US, where research flourishes without a dual-stream system. In reality, the significant endowments at the disposal of the leading research universities serve as the equivalent of QR grants from the higher education funding councils in the UK.

QR funding is especially important in supporting research in the arts and humanities. Research in these fields often takes place over an extended period without a precisely defined outcome in view. Project funding through the Arts and Humanities Research Board has been popular because it provides additional funding for specific activities but is not well adapted to releasing staff time for basic research in the breadth and depth that QR makes possible. Eighty-six per cent of arts and humanities research income for higher education institutions in England is from Hefce. Ending QR would remove the support for much of that work.

The notion that a single-project funding stream would provide resources for a larger number of universities is not grounded in reality. According to the latest data, 84 per cent of research council grants go to 25 institutions, whereas 75 per cent of QR provided by Hefce goes to 25 institutions. Furthermore, the research councils, like any other public funding body, require firm evidence that their funding has been put to good use, and this is provided by peer review through the research assessment exercise.

Arguments for maintaining the dual-support system are not based on deception and self-interest but on ensuring that the UK is able to develop and sustain world-class research.

Rama Thirunamachandran is director of research and knowledge transfer at the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

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