Forget the deckchairs - are we on the right ship?

September 23, 2005

We need a radical post-RAE rethink to free research from the grip of needless bureaucracy, says Robert May

The way that the quality of scientific research undertaken by our universities is evaluated to determine how funding is distributed, is due for a really radical review.

The current system has the merit of explicitly recognising the need for two distinct streams of funding, one for the direct costs of the research and the other - in the hands of central academic administration - for associated indirect costs.

But at the institutional level, this is essentially a unitary enterprise.

The UK's system of having two entirely separate streams of evaluation and competition - one looking forwards to individual projects for direct costs, and the other looking backwards at a departmental level for infrastructure - has become increasingly bureaucratic.

That we need to support the things that make research possible, such as the maintenance of buildings, as well as the research itself, is not in question. What must be explored is the possibility of doing away with two different bureaucracies that distribute funding for these areas. This question is thrown into stark relief when you consider that there is a tight correlation between the money that a university receives through each of two different funding routes.

The research assessment exercise, the mechanism on which the funding councils base their distribution of research money for infrastructure and indirect costs, is overloading researchers with administrative work. While the Government must account for the public money invested, we must not create a situation where researchers spend their time form-filling rather than pushing back the frontiers of knowledge.

The competition for grants for doing research handles collaborations not only among departments but also between different universities or other institutions. This is because the focus is on the project itself, rather than on a bureaucratic entity. In contrast, the RAE focuses on departments, and thus inhibits cross-departmental and inter-institutional collaboration.

The changes proposed by the Higher Education Funding Council for England to be implemented in the next RAE, scheduled for 2008, should yield improvements. However, these will not obviate the need for a radical review in time to put post-2008 plans in place. The RAE ship, with its heavy bureaucratic freight, will take a long time to turn around.

In line with the outcome of the investigation into the RAE by Sir Gareth Roberts, such a review should consider doing away with the current system where researchers are peer reviewed twice for the same activity. While peer review is essential for providing funding from research councils and other sources, there is no good reason why funding for infrastructure should not be allocated at the level of institution, in proportion to the level of direct support for research.

This is in essence what is done in the US, and it has worked well there for something like 50 years. There, the infrastructure money comes from calculating the overall averaged indirect cost rate at the university, and attaching this to each grant by simple formula. Additional argument for this process comes from the fact, mentioned above, that it would produce an outcome not significantly different from the more burdensome system we now have. Such small fluctuations as it might produce would be compensated for by administrative savings.

Clearly, any replacement system must not discriminate against interdisciplinary research and inter-institutional collaborations.

Additionally, it must continue to take into account the need for two types of university research funding, both infrastructure and project funding.

The former should be under the control of the institution as a pot of money for development of future research strategies and funding high-quality research that might not be eligible for research council money because, for example, it falls outside current priorities.

The review should consider whether the balance between project and infrastructure funding is the right one.

The approach advocated here also addresses another difficulty with the present RAE. Currently, because of the recent changes in the weightings given to different disciplines, laboratory subjects bring in relatively less money to an institution despite the fact that they are more costly.

Infrastructure funding distributed in proportion to research grant income addresses this question.

With 2008 looming large, we must be thinking now about such a fundamental review. It is important that such an independent analysis should focus not on rearranging the deckchairs but on determining whether we are on the right ship.

Lord May of Oxford is president of the Royal Society.

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