Research faces big overhaul

September 1, 2000

Review heralds far-reaching research funding changes, says Alison Goddard.

Research funding is to be radically reformed following a fundamental review published today by the funding council.

More funding streams will be established, forcing universities to meet new standards and make competitive bids for the cash.

Universities will have to meet minimum standards to access a new postgraduate training fund. They will also have to submit staff development plans to receive any research funding.

Generic research funding will be channelled into a new research capability development fund that will enable institutions to respond to strategic needs at local, regional and national levels. Universities will bid for the cash.

Funds for research capital will also be earmarked and provided separately from the rest of the funding allocated through the research assessment exercise.

The recommendations come a week after bidding exercises and the accountability regime were damned as "poor value for money".

The burden of accountability costs the sector more than Pounds 250 million a year - some 4 per cent of the public funds it receives.

Sir Brian Fender, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, denied that the proposals would increase the burden of accountability.

For example, the funding council would not dictate the minimum standards for postgraduate training, Sir Brian said. He added: "We will work with research councils and other stakeholders, such as industry and charities, to develop minimum requirements for postgraduate research student training that departments would need to satisfy in order to be eligible for Hefce funding."

Janet Metcalfe, who coordinates the Research Councils' Graduate Schools Programme, welcomed the higher profile that postgraduate training will now receive. She said: "Most institutions recognise that they can gain a competitive advantage by offering high-quality research training."

Both the facilities and the quality of the environment in which the postgraduate student works will be assessed. Departments will be asked to expose postgraduate students to a research environment of international quality. Smaller and lower-ranking departments will be encouraged to collaborate with others to ensure that research training needs are met.

Whether departments are meeting these minimum standards will be ascertained by RAE panels after the 2001 exercise. However, following discussions with the research community, the funding council decided against adjusting RAE ratings to reflect the quality of research training.

On staff development, the recommendations are less prescriptive and funding chiefs are still cautiously mulling over the possible consequences of introducing minimum standards.

"Increased support for career development that requires departments to develop explicit staff development strategies might have unintended consequences. If institutions were obliged to employ people on a longer-term basis, it might simply reduce the opportunities provided by temporary academic positions. This might lead to many good researchers leaving the profession," the review says.

The new capability development fund to enable institutions to respond to strategic needs at local, regional and national levels will initially see a modest funding stream of about Pounds 40 million, paid for by halting cash for generic research, which will be combined with the Higher Education Reach Out to Business and the Community fund. However, Hefce hopes to use the new funding stream to lever support from other users. Cash from the fund could also be used to boost stipends for PhD students to attract them to shortage subjects such as economics.

The year-long fundamental review of research took place after concerns emerged about aspects of the current system for funding, which was established 15 years ago. About 40 senior academics and advisers reviewed research policy and funding on behalf of Hefce. A further seven studies were commissioned to inform the work.

Extra money must be ploughed into research so that the top performers in the RAE do not see budgets cut, the review warns.

"Sophisticated modelling has been carried out, making different assumptions about changes in ratings and the volume of research recorded at the next RAE. If there is a continuing improvement in grades at the same rate as in the past, and an increase in the number of staff submitted, almost Pounds 60 million in extra resources will need to be found after the 2001 RAE to satisfy those departments that have improved to a 5 or 5* rating and to maintain the level of funding for those departments that continue to be 5 or 5* rated," the review notes.

If the cash is not forthcoming, funding chiefs must juggle the weightings to protect top-rated departments. However, middle-rated research, scoring 3a and 3b in the RAE, should still win funding.

Finally, the peer review panels judging the RAE should consider a broader range of evidence when evaluating research performance, the review recommends.

In physics or chemistry, for example, impact factors and citation information might play a part, whereas in history, more attention could be paid to longer-term scholarly activities such as the editorship of dictionaries.

The review makes 38 recommendations, which will be subject to consultation.


Principles and purposes

The degree of selectivity should aim to balance the need to enable world-class research to flourish with the need to enable new subjects and new areas of excellence to develop

* Considerations of "critical mass" should not play a part in Hefce allocations decisions

* Hefce should aim to increase the research funding for distribution as "quality research (QR)" funding, in order to allow improving departments to benefit and funding for top-rated 5 and 5* departments to be maintained. If this proves impossible, Hefce should pitch the degree of selectivity to protect the funding of top-rated departments

* Funding should be retained for 3a and 3b rated submissions

* Hefce should ensure that its funding and assessment processes do not inhibit collaboration between researchers and it should consider providing support for research networks, but there is no case for explicit funding for collaborative research activity

* The lower level of project funds provided to arts and humanities subjects by the Arts and Humanities Research Board should be taken into account by Hefce when determining subject budgets

Research assessment exercise

* The quality of research should remain the basis for assessment in the RAE, but Hefce should consider means to ensure that applicable research is fairly assessed

* The RAE process should recognise that different disciplines have different characteristics of excellence. Panels should be able to draw on evidence provided specifically for their discipline. The criteria adopted should continue to be transparent.

Impact on other activities

* Hefce should discontinue generic research (GR) funding and build on the Higher Education Reach Out to Business and the Community (Herobc) fund to encourage institutions to engage with industry

* The funds provided by Hefce and the Department of Trade and Industry for Herobc should be increased substantially on a sustainable basis and mechanisms should be established for the selective distribution of these funds

* Hefce should create a new funding stream to supplement the researcher-driven and user-driven funds. This "capability development" funding should be provided to institutions in response to proposals for their use

* Hefce should consider modifying its funding method to remove incentives to recruit research staff and students at the expense of appropriate investment in research infrastructure

* In general, institutions should charge prices that cover at least the full cost of research carried out under contract

* Additional funds should be provided annually by the government for research infrastructure. These should be earmarked for this purpose when allocated to institutions by Hefce

* Hefce should consider earmarking specifically for infrastructure investment a proportion of QR funding provided to institutions.


* Hefce should consider the under-representation of women in the highest-rated departments and whether there are other groups who are not realising their full research potential

* Submissions to the RAE should be allowed to include personal statements in respect of staff for whom a normal contribution to the standard form of submission is not appropriate

* Research training should be the subject of a separate, but linked, assessment process to the RAE

* Hefce funding for training research students should be calculated and identified separately from funding provided for research

* Hefce, together with the research councils and other stakeholders, such as industry and charities, should develop minimum postgraduate research student training requirements that departments must satisfy in order to be eligible for Hefce funding

* Collaborative arrangements should be established to enable units to meet all aspects of the postgraduate research training requirement that they might not be able to meet alone. Hefce should devise practical arrangements to implement this recommendation

* The proposed capacity-development funding stream should be employed to ensure an adequate PhD output in all subjects

* Institutions should be required to submit a staff development strategy as a precondition for research funding.

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