Roberts cash helps research and researchers, Vitae report says

Analysis reveals positive impact of money amid calls for clarity about the future. Zoë Corbyn reports

September 3, 2009

A pot of funding provided to develop researchers' careers - so-called Roberts funding - has resulted in a marked improvement in research quality and career success, a team set up to consider its impact has said.

The study of university programmes found a "real step change" in the development of those benefiting from the funding, which has been provided since 2004-05 following recommendations in a 2002 report led by Sir Gareth Roberts.

A team of senior university staff charged with assessing the impact of the funding is scheduled to present a report on its progress at the annual Vitae researcher development conference, which is being held at the University of Warwick next week, with Times Higher Education as its media partner.

The Roberts money has enabled institutions to develop a wide range of schemes to aid researchers' professional and personal development.

The pot totals about £20 million a year and is allocated to universities through the research councils according to the numbers of research council-funded students.

But the future of the cash is uncertain. The ring-fenced money has been guaranteed only until 2010-11. Its fate hangs on the outcomes of the next Comprehensive Spending Review and the general election.

The report is a first analysis of the impact of of the many programmes that universities run. The authors rated each on a number of different levels of impact that could be achieved. These included the take-up of Roberts-funded training, the extent to which participants had benefited from schemes, and whether researchers' behaviour had changed as a result of programmes.

The study also looked at whether changes in researcher behaviour had led to measurable improvements within each institution, such as raising the quality of work.

The results show that a majority of projects were viewed by participants as positive and worthwhile. About half were judged to have changed researchers' behaviour, and about four in ten had a tangible effect on research performance.

Ella Richie, pro vice-chancellor for teaching and learning at Newcastle University and chairwoman of the assessment team, said the results would show funders the value of the investment. "Roberts funding to the sector as a whole has made a real step change," she said, suggesting that it gave UK researchers an advantage over their continental counterparts.

Speaking to Times Higher Education last week, Janet Metcalfe, chair of Vitae - the national organisation for the development of doctoral researchers and research staff in universities - said the ambiguity surrounding the future of the funding had to be cleared up.

"The uncertainty could be hugely damaging," she said. "You risk losing highly qualified people and losing momentum in the agenda."

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