Mass is not critical - 1994 Group members have edge in innovation

President-elect discusses creative spark, a future for soft sciences and other challenges with Zoë Corbyn

April 16, 2009

Standing at 6ft 3in he may be one of the taller men in higher education, but for Paul Wellings "size doesn't matter".

The vice-chancellor of Lancaster University is president-elect of the 1994 Group of smaller research-intensive universities. He mounts a strong riposte to the argument that the "critical mass" enjoyed by large research-intensive universities in the Russell Group automatically means that they are better at research.

"The scaling issue that just says bigger is better is wrong," he said. "If you go into any research-led department around the country, the organisational unit that exists is teams of five to 15 individuals ... bigger departments just mean more teams."

Professor Wellings argues that small universities can produce more interdisciplinary and novel research because researchers are more likely to meet people from other disciplines in a smaller pond.

Although he does not officially start his presidency until the beginning of August, he has, in effect, taken up the job early - and with gusto - while current president Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter, prepares to take the helm of Universities UK.

Professor Wellings spent two decades in Australia, where he was head of science and innovation policy for the Australian Government and deputy chief executive of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. He returned to Britain, and took up the Lancaster job, in 2002.

The 1994 Group had gone from strength to strength under Professor Smith's leadership, Professor Wellings said, and he wanted this to continue.

He was keen to stress the group members' achievements in the recent research assessment exercise.

"We have paid some penalty for not being science heavy, but we've done extraordinarily well as a group," he said.

High places

On the national higher education scene, Professor Wellings sits on the boards of UUK and the Higher Education Funding Council for England, and chairs Hefce's research and innovation committee as well as UUK's international and European policy committee.

Professor Wellings took part in University Secretary John Denham's recent exploratory work to map out the future of higher education and was asked to investigate issues surrounding intellectual property.

Arguing that universities would become increasingly defined by which mission group they belonged to, he said research was the real differentiator between these clusters.

Professor Wellings said that one of his major concerns was the future support for what he called "CLASH subjects" - cultures, languages, arts, social sciences and humanities.

The 1994 Group estimates that, after RAE 2008, these subjects had lost roughly 20 pence in the pound per head, when the increases in numbers of researchers and the Hefce decision to preserve the proportion of money going to science at the expense of the CLASH subjects had been taken into account.

Professor Wellings said that this was a worry because, as the Government looked to fund research around strategic priorities and global challenges, these subjects would matter enormously.

He said: "Climate change, the digital economy, global security ... to tackle these, the research capability set that is needed is both scientific and from the CLASH subjects. If we allow one side of the house to degrade, we will not have the full range of capacity that will be mission critical for the UK."

He added: "The tragedy here will be if, in five years, someone comes along and says 'look, we need to have a global challenge on climate-change adaptation' and we suddenly discover that all our social-science capacity is switched off."

Another question thrown up in the wake of the RAE is how the 1994 Group members will collaborate with the "pockets of excellence" in research identified in the teaching-led universities.

Professor Wellings described this as an "interesting challenge".

"Can we say, hand on heart, that we are as collaboratively engaged with all the universities in our regions as we need to be?" he asked.

Funding concerns

Professor Wellings also reiterated concern over the future of the dual-support system, where the research councils provide grants for specific projects and the funding councils provide block grant to support research infrastructure and projects of institutions' choosing.

"The political voice says dual funding is fine ... but what no one talks about is the balance of quality-related research (QR) funding (provided by Hefce) versus non-QR (provided by the research councils)," he said. "The relative growth of funds on the research councils' side has been faster than on the QR side and we are not convinced that that should accelerate."

Professor Wellings feared that, in tight economic times, resources might be moved from one pot to another. "We think that would be deleterious to the long-term vitality of research," he said.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com.

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