ESRC’s block grant allocation is flawed, says academic

REF analysis suggests that new system for allocating funds has ‘no correspondence with excellence in research impact’

January 8, 2015

The results of the research excellence framework illustrate the folly of the Economic and Social Research Council in allocating its block grants for knowledge transfer on the basis of institutions’ ESRC grant income, a senior academic has claimed.

The ESRC scrapped its previous open competition for impact funding, known as the Knowledge Exchange Opportunities Scheme, last summer. It was replaced with block grants known as Impact Acceleration Accounts (IAAs). Worth about £700,000 over four years, these were offered to the 26 institutions with the largest mainstream grant income from the ESRC over the previous three years, subject to their submitting a satisfactory business case.

However, according to an analysis of submissions to the 11 REF sub-panels under main panel C, which largely cover social science, several institutions that score highly for the quality of their impact do not hold IAAs. These include the universities of Bath, Ulster and Leeds, which are 2nd, 7th and 10th respectively on grade point average (excluding institutions that submitted to only one social science subpanel).

The analysis, carried out by Adam Crawford, pro-dean for research and innovation at the University of Leeds’ Faculty of Education, Social Sciences and Law, also reveals that some IAA holders rank relatively low on the quality of their social science impact. These include the University of Southampton and Newcastle and Bangor universities, which are 51st, 49th and 48th respectively.

When ranked according to research power (the product of GPA and the number of staff submitted), most top-ranking institutions do hold IAAs, although there are still some that do not. These include Leeds, Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Kent.

Professor Crawford, who was a member of the law subpanel, said that the most meaningful volume-related calculation would be based on the number of impact case studies submitted, as he had noticed that several institutions routinely submitted staff numbers fractionally under the threshold for being required to submit an additional impact case study.

In its explanation of IAAs, the ESRC says application numbers to the Knowledge Exchange Opportunities Scheme were dwindling, and the IAA scheme – which had been “tried and tested” by other research councils – will “allow research organisations to respond to knowledge exchange opportunities in more flexible, responsive and creative ways than centrally administered schemes”. Professor Crawford said he had no objection to handing more responsibility for distributing funding to universities. But the ESRC’s approach was illustrative of a general trend among research councils to respond to declines in their internal budgets by adopting procedures that were cheap to administer rather than being the most effective at identifying excellence.

“It is perplexing that the ESRC preferred to use a very blunt indicator that had no correspondence with excellence in research impact rather than wait less than a year for the rigorous judgements of peer academics and non-academic impact assessors to inform the allocation of such a major source of long-term funding,” he said.

A spokesman for the ESRC said: “As a research council we are committed to funding excellence with impact. IAAs are therefore not funded based on who has historically produced good impact, but on who is producing excellent research at a volume that means there are likely to be opportunities for more impact to be made across their social science portfolio” than can be supported at project level.

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