Quick fix will not rescue UK plc from RAE robbers

March 26, 2004

Lambert's proposal for a new stream of funding for business-relevant research is vital, argues Alan Reed.

When the government publishes its ten-year investment framework for science and innovation alongside the 2004 spending review this summer, it will also respond for the first time to the Lambert review of business-university collaboration. If the recommendation that "a significant new stream of business-relevant research funding, which would be available to support university departments that can demonstrate strong support from business", is to be implemented, it will be welcome. But the funding criteria for business-facing research need careful determination to avoid perpetuating the funding gap, identified by Lambert, by failing to focus on the clearly identified area of need.

Such a funding stream is urgently needed after the damaging effects of the "rob the rest to fund the best" funding policy after the research assessment exercise of 2001. In many units of assessment, the grades awarded followed a league table approach based on academic indicators that were judged to identify quality and excellence. In many subject areas, little, if any, account was taken of business-facing research and its value to UK plc.

Such work is, of necessity, often multidisciplinary and does not lend itself to traditional discipline-based units of assessment. With hindsight, it should not be surprising that many research groups, in which this is the principal focus of activity, did not rate highly in the RAE. Subsequent significant reductions in funds for grade 4 research groups, and the complete removal of funds for 3a groups, mean that many are experiencing considerable difficulties in maintaining the basic infrastructure to sustain their research endeavours. Case studies highlighted by Lambert of my research group (specialising in particulate handling technology) and the Brewing Yeast Research Group at Oxford Brookes University are two examples.

Recent signals from the Higher Education Funding Council for England on RAE 2008 are encouraging in terms of giving greater recognition to "applied and practice-based research". But any monies flowing from this are unlikely to come on-stream until 2009-10, some five-and-a-half years from now.

By then, without other significant sources of funding, important business-facing research groups may well have withered on the vine. Lambert offers the only real hope of additional funds to help sustain such groups in the short or medium term.

To argue that if research groups are important to business then business should pay for them shows a lack of understanding of how university business-facing research and development works. The business community is happy to pay for research, including an overhead, but does not expect to pay for basic infrastructure in universities as well. The situation is a parallel of the well-understood dual-funding system, where the research councils put up the cash for researchers to undertake specific research projects, but they expect the funding councils to have provided a research capability and infrastructure to support and sustain the well-found labora-tory.

There is a clear and urgent need for Lambert-type funding. But urgency must not lead to a quick fix that inappropriately distributes funds in relation to need. RAE grades should not be used to inform judgements on quality and excellence in business-relevant research, otherwise Lambert would not have identified the funding gap and made his recommendation for a new funding stream in the first place.

We need new, easily understood and fair criteria that can best be devised by the coming together of representatives on both the demand and supply sides of business-university collaboration - in short, business, the Department of Trade and Industry, regional development agencies and representatives from higher education who are demonstrably operating at the leading edge of business-related research and development.

Without appropriate action, some business-facing research groups will disappear. Given that some such groups operate in niche areas of activity, possessing expertise and facilities that are unique to the UK, it follows that the breadth of the university research base in the UK is bound to narrow. This will not be good for the UK. If the chancellor agrees and acts accordingly, he has the justification in Lambert for doing so.

Alan Reed is director of The Wolfson Centre for Bulk Solids Handling Technology, Greenwich University.

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