Funding for research rated 2* (defined as “internationally recognised”) in the 2008 research assessment exercise was fully removed in 2012 and some observers had speculated that funding for 3* (“internationally excellent”) research could also be cut in the wake of the research excellence framework results, announced in December, which revealed a big leap in the proportion of research rated 3* and 4* (“world-leading”), from 54 per cent in 2008 to 76 per cent in 2014.
However, in its annual grant letter to the Higher Education Funding Council for England, ministers from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills say they expect the funder to “continue selectivity to fund world-leading and internationally excellent research wherever it is found”.
“Wherever it is found” is underlined, quashing any thought that the research budget – which has not increased in cash terms since before the last general election – might be purposely concentrated further in research-intensive universities.
Hefce is obliged to take the grant letter into account when devising its QR funding formula, which will be announced at the end of March.
The letter cites the “high quality” results of the REF as justification for the government’s continuing investment in research.
“These successes are vital to our future economic prospects as the country now enters a period of growth,” it adds. “New knowledge generates new companies. Skilled graduates enable our country to compete in ever-more challenging global markets. We expect our reforms and funding commitments to continue to drive economic growth.”
The letter also dampens speculation that the QR funding stream might be under threat in the post-election spending review.
“The dual support system has delivered an increasing share of the world’s best research, and quality-related funding remains fundamental to our country’s success,” it says.
Hefce is also asked to “consider how to reward open data as part of future REF assessments”, and to work with Jisc to minimise the cost of the government’s commitment to open access. The government has been criticised by some in the sector for the potential cost of its preference for journal-based gold open access, which often involves the payment of a fee, to repository-based green open access. However, although papers submitted to the next REF must be open access, the funding councils have not expressed such a preference.
The government also makes clear that it wants to see the benefits of its increased investment in science capital – which is fixed at £1.1 billion in real terms until 2020-21 – widely shared. The grant letter directs Hefce to “promote openness and collaboration through the better sharing of infrastructure, data assets and other research resources to improve the efficiency and productivity of research in a more agile sector”.
Hefce is also asked to “develop arrangements to provide increased transparency” around the impact of capital investments on “the wider research base”.