The “uncertainty” surrounding the future of the so-called Roberts funding designed to develop researchers’ careers could be “hugely damaging”, it was warned this week.
The stark warning from Janet Metcalfe, chair of Vitae – the national organisation for the development of doctoral researchers and research staff in universities – comes ahead of its annual researcher development conference to be held next month at Warwick University, supported by Times Higher Education.
Provided since 2004-05 following a recommendation in a 2002 report from Sir Gareth Roberts, the Roberts money has enabled institutions to develop a wide range of projects and schemes around researchers’ professional and personal development.
The cash totals about £20 million a year and is allocated to universities through the research councils according to their numbers of research council-funded students.
But future cash is uncertain. The ring-fenced money has been guaranteed only until 2010-2011, with the future of the pot dependent on the outcomes of the next comprehensive spending review and the next election.
Dr Metcalfe said that the uncertainty surrounding its future would form the “backdrop” of the conference.
“The risk to losing the Roberts funding and the extreme pressures on [universities’] internal funding and is putting pressures both strategically on institutions and also on individuals who are trying to support this agenda,” she said. She estimated that there were around 500 people in Roberts-funded posts who did not know whether the funding was going to continue.
“You risk losing highly qualified people and losing momentum in the agenda… The uncertainty in itself could be hugely damaging,” she said.
She praised universities for doing “fantastically well” not only at supporting and developing postgraduate researchers’ skills but “increasingly” for research staff too. “They have done it on Roberts money but also on institutional funds,” she stressed.
She said that while the government had made “lots of very positive comments” about the importance of having trained, skilled researchers feeding into the economy, the pressure on research funding meant the future for the Roberts money was “just not sure”.
She said the conference would also present delegates with evidence of the impact university programmes were starting to have. “There are projects within individual institutions where they have seen improvement in the success rate of grant applications, improvement in applications for fellowships… we are starting to see directly relatable benefits to the research environment from this training and development,” she stressed.
The Vitae Researcher Development Conference 2009: Realising the Potential of Researchers is due to run from the 8 – 9 September. It is billed as the “UK's largest event for people with a commitment to the personal, professional and career development of researchers”.