HEFCE may reject foreign ingredients for funding recipe

December 18, 1998

The international standing of subjects is unlikely to be used as a basis for allocating research cash from the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

HEFCE research funding is also unlikely to be linked to national needs as identified, for example, through the Foresight programme.

Staff at HEFCE have privately admitted that the funding council is shying away from these proposals.

English research is the best in the world or second only to the United 7States, according to a study by Jonathan Adams at the University of Leeds that was published by HEFCE earlier this year. But researchers are opposed to HEFCE using these ratings to distribute research funds.

"HEFCE should be wary of appearing to manage the science base at a detailed level," stated the Royal Society's response to HEFCE's consultation on the proposals. "The national need is to support the best researchers available and to give them maximum flexibility compatible with accountability. This means leaving detailed decisions to the local level, which is precisely the principle enshrined in the concept of the block grant."

HEFCE's grant represents about one-third of the total funding for research in higher education, and totalled Pounds 804 million in 1998-99. The rest of the money comes from the research councils, which fund individual research projects, plus other government departments and private sources.

Peter Collins, head of science advice at the Royal Society, said: "The key thing that HEFCE does for researchers is buy them time to think and explore ideas."

"The consultation paper suggests that the policy factor could be based in part on national need and that this need could be identified with the decisions of the agencies that fund research projects in universities. This would be inappropriate: if funding council allocations simply parallel research council allocations, there is little point in maintaining two distinct funding streams."

There was also a problem with identifying which areas of research in the social sciences and humanities were relevant to national needs.

"(HEFCE) should consider whether it is possible to develop one approach that can be applied equally across all units of assessment, including social sciences and humanities, and, if that is not possible, whether it is worth the complexity of operating several different approaches simultaneously," stated the Royal Society.

Final responses to the consultation on the introduction of a policy factor into research funding are due today. HEFCE will discuss the responses at its board meeting next month.

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