Report's sad note

April 19, 1996

When one of a report's recommendations is deemed "intriguing" even by its chairman, it is probably a suggestion that requires plenty of hard thought.

11 = /And a quick read of this week's National Academies Policy Advisory Group (Napag) report, produced by the major academies that represent British university research, is puzzling. This senior group (the British Academy, the Conference of Medical Royal Colleges, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society) has complained that the funding of UK research is insufficient. But rather than asking for more money it has suggested that some money should be diverted from research.

The depressing aspect of this report stems from its realism. It notes that British universities cannot produce the quality research that is asked of them and which is essential to remain of international calibre. But the authors have come to the sober conclusion that, whatever they do, no more money will be forthcoming. David Harrison, chairman of the working group that produced the report, said that this was the overwhelming message of the many people whose opinions they canvassed. The Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals agrees that no one who knows about the state of UK research could disagree.

Thus cowed, they have suggested a salvaging exercise. To save the best of British research we must divert money from the second best and refrain from giving any money to departments with a research rating of 2 (on a scale where 5 is the highest and 1 already yields nothing).

Save British Science objects that the proposal is a recipe for reducing the amount of high-quality research. The authors disagree.

To those who complain that research should not be further concentrated the authors will sympathise but reply "well, that's life".

But to those who argue that concentrating research even further will create that much-feared divide between teaching and research, the authors have an answer. There will never be enough money for everyone who teaches to do research. The next-best solution is to ensure that staff who only teach have sufficient resources to engage in "scholarly" activity - researching the latest developments in their subjects or travelling to conferences, for example.

So, in the words of one of the authors, the best that can be done is to "sugar the pill" by spending about Pounds 50 million, which would otherwise have gone to research, on developing teachers. Such a sum would not buy a lot of research anyway, they argue.

This may be true but the group is, nevertheless, arguing for a shrunken research budget, which conflicts with its overall message that university research is not producing what it should. Of the Pounds 50 million, some Pounds 30 million would otherwise have funded 2-rated departments and it has been argued that this is a useful bit of experimental seed-corn money. De Montfort University, for example, says that such income has nurtured departments that now earn big money from sources other than the funding council. But Dr Harrison says many universities have been drifting from their mission statements because they feel compelled to compete for research money in order to survive. This pressure should be removed, he says, releasing certain universities or departments to build up teaching excellence.

Nevertheless the report's main analysis has been welcomed by the majority. Its fears about the future of high-quality research have of course been echoed. Also welcome has been its publicising of the fact that universities are in desperate need of hundreds of millions of pounds in order to glue their buildings and equipment back together.

If its ideas are adopted there is a danger of a thick ring-fence being built which would prevent new research ideas from finding the space to grow. There is also the prospect that the results of the 1996 research assessment exercise could be terrifying for embryonic departments that have gambled on building up research.

But if the proposals are not adopted, who will produce a better set of ideas for keeping the UK's research on the international stage?

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