In research funding sweepstakes, Yorkshire beats London, Willetts says

October 21, 2010

It is often assumed that, as with most of the country's wealth, a disproportionate amount of research funding in England is funnelled to the South East.

The assumption is incorrect, according to David Willetts, the universities and science minister, who was questioned on the topic by members of the Lords Science and Technology Committee.

Responding to concerns that the demise of regional development agencies would lead to an even greater proportion of research income being concentrated in the South East, Mr Willetts said data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency showed that research income per institution was actually highest in Yorkshire. The most recent figures showed that research income per head of population in London was £103, compared with an average of £55 across England, he said. But the figure for the South East excluding London was only £58.

"London is the outlier," he told committee members last week. "But that seems to be driven by the concentration of universities and research institutions in London."

He said the average research income of a university in the capital was £18.5 million compared with £23 million in Yorkshire, £10.4 million in Wales and a UK average of £20.4 million. "Once you allow for the concentration, the distribution looks more even," he said.

Lord Willis, the former chair of the Commons Science and Technology Committee, said the London figure was kept down by the high concentration of non-research-intensive institutions in the capital.

He said he accepted that cuts demanded greater concentration of research funding to top institutions but warned that it would mean the regions would be "denuded" of resources, and a "huge divide" would open up between the South East and the rest of the country.

Mr Willetts also quoted new analyses of Hesa data in answer to a question about whether cuts to the research budget would dissuade foreign doctoral candidates from coming to England.

He said the proportion of foreign researchers entering full-time academic research in the UK had risen from 18 per cent of the total in 2002-03 to 30 per cent in 2007-08. But he said it was unclear how much of the rise was due merely to globalisation.

Mr Willetts said he agreed with scientists - to his "great relief" - that "micro" decisions about ceasing funding for particular institutes or research areas should be taken by academics rather than officials.

"But we can't bow out entirely. One thing I am keen to do is (to make sure that) whatever savings are necessary should be heavily focused on efficiency and the overhead costs of the research councils."

He also warned that science had to face up to the lack of career options for postdoctoral researchers. "There has been such a surge in numbers I can't see how it could be possibly sustained," he said. "I get lots of emails from frustrated 33-year-olds who can't quite see where they are supposed to be going."

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