Fair share of nothing

April 5, 1996

With the start of British Summer Time, the clock stopped on the next research assessment exercise. Institutions have made their decisions - which staff to enter, which publications to count. Publishers have worked overtime to rush out the crucial monographs (see Ned Thomas, page 11), and the discs have to be sent to Bristol by the end of the month. At least this time trees and warehouse space will be saved thanks to new technology.

Now comes the dead time while everyone waits for the assessments, which will appear late this year or early in 1997. It is widely expected that the outcome will be a more differentiated system than we have now, with the group of universities which already dominate research drawing further ahead of the rest but gaining little if anything in cash terms because of the fixed limit to funds.

But if there is a general election in the autumn, the allocations could be made under new political priorities. Formulae used to determine how limited research funding is to be split may yet be changed. Vice chancellors' harrumphings may even produce extra money in next autumn's budget so that the allocations can be made on a more favourable basis than the currently expected zero-minus-3 per cent sum game.

There is not enough detail yet in party pronouncements to know whether the rules are likely to change. But we are now in the manifesto writing season. Labour is promising to put its manifesto out for approval by its 350,000 members. The Conservatives have begun consulting some of their party faithful. High excitement is not now expected from the Liberal Democrats since their more scientifically sensitive members got party policy amended at their spring conference in Nottingham so as to restore backing for the dual support system.

This is the time for the research community to make its case. Achieving unanimity in demands for more money would not be hard. Nor would a good degree of agreement be difficult to reach on the main uses for any extra cash: better conditions for research staff, updated equipment and more funding for research projects.

Alas, extra money may be easiest to agree on but hardest to get. Much harder to agree on will be how existing money should be used. The research money distributed by research councils - Pounds 638 million for England, Pounds 94 million for Scotland and Pounds 41 million for Wales - is the only quasi "free" money institutions receive for research. Everything else is tied to particular projects.

There is understandably pressure from those who do less well under the present rules for changes which would swing even this limited amount of unearmarked cash into line with the wealth-generating priorities set by Government through the Realising our Potential Awards and Foresight exercises. David Band and Howard Green of Leeds Metropolitan University argued this case in The THES on March 8. It is a reasonable position and one reinforced by Peter Cook's report (page 2). If we, as a country, are serious about building knowledge-based industries which will keep us in some sort of style as we age, should we not be consistent across the range of public policy?

The trouble is that it is far from clear what will generate wealth in the next century and all too clear that politicians and businessmen are not into longtermism. The presence of the Office of Science and Technology in the Department for Trade and Industry does not inspire confidence that a long-term view will be taken of the research agenda.

The last couple of weeks have shown what can happen when research (for example, exploring ways to increase the wealth-generating capacity of beef herds) becomes closely geared to industry and is not effectively counterbalanced by other work which can check for unforeseen consequences. It has never been more apparent (see pages 14 and 15) how much we need to maintain a core of research - not just in science but across the range of intellectual activity - independent of powerful vested interests.

We have traditionally fostered maverick talent. Sometimes it has won us Nobel prizes. It has not made us as rich as it should have had we also paid attention to the exploitation and development of that work. The fault for that was correctly identified by the Government in its 1993 White Paper as lying with industry and with the political culture.

The Government has rightly been trying to alter that but, in the process, seems to have forgotten that there will be no point in getting better at application if we have killed off the basic research to apply. We have not won a Nobel prize since 1988 - and we are not getting rich as fast as anyone hoped either.

It is understandable that institutions should press for research funding formulae to be altered in whatever way will best reward their research profile. With research activity rising and money fixed, only alterations in the formulae can produce gainers in the next round. It is easy to couch the arguments in terms of "fairness". It is easy to portray those with a lions' share of funding at present as fat cats.

But if we are to have a robust science base capable of responding to whatever demands may be made upon it, we must have excellent long-term research facilities which attract those with curious and inventive minds and give them scope to roam.

The science community has become too demoralised and dependent on funders with specific agendas. There is too little free money. If there cannot be more then it may be necessary to be ruthless in using what little there is. Politicians should pause before they promise to share funds more "fairly".

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