Research funds not for industry

July 30, 1999

The outcomes from the research assessment exercise are used by the funding councils to allocate a limited amount of money in a selective way. Over the years there has been a growing lobby that wants to see the funding councils give sizeable recognition to research carried out in collaboration with industry, first by having it recognised explicitly in the RAE and subsequently by having it attract a proportion of research funds.

In support of its cause, this lobby has quoted the push from the government to get higher education institutions to have a greater degree of involvement with industry. No one can disagree with the premise that research in collaboration with industry is vital but there are dangers in overplaying the argument about money from the funding councils.

Visualise a farm gate at which research products are sold. Such products at the farm gate or research within a view of the farm gate can generate many sponsors. Without a lot of research activity that takes place and has taken place far away out of sight of customers, there would be very few products appearing at the market gate. Such out-of-sight basic fundamental research has no immediate short-term commercial value and hence understandably very few commercial sponsors. The bulk of this kind of research takes place in higher education institutions and is funded by the government and in small measure from student fees. Research funds from funding councils are allocated mostly for such research.

The research sponsored by industry should be more than paying for itself. Unfortunately for the "blue-skies" type of research, non-government sponsorship is extremely rare. A vociferous campaign for the diversion of council funds for industrial research, if successful, will reduce the amount available for fundamental research. Academics should be collecting full funds for industrial research anyway. Meagre government research funds for academics should not be subsidising the work of profit-seeking industries.

If it were to be a question of recognition of such collaborative activity, the RAE could carry out an evaluation of such research but the results ought not to be linked to funding. The RAE ratings could be advertised to attract more business rather than funds from the funding councils.

It is true that government is encouraging collaboration, but it would be a sad day if most of academe were beholden to industry for funding research. If all the research workers in the universities were in the pay of genetically modified food manufacturers, where would we find independent assessors?

Any kind of erosion of the meagre funds of the funding councils by channelling some of it to subsidise industrial research would be a step not to be taken lightly. The funding councils should encourage collaborative activity with industry, attach epaulettes to outstanding performances but they should not deplete their meagre research funds by treating them on a par with funding blue-skies types of activity.

Carolyn Bingham Bristol

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