Royal Society calls time on dual support

November 21, 2003

The Royal Society this week urged the government to scrap the current "outdated" system for funding university research in favour of a more straightforward and less bureaucratic system.

In a formal statement issued on Monday, the organisation says that having one funding stream for research proposals and another for indirect research costs and infrastructure - the so-called dual-support system - was putting universities under "insupportable" pressure.

The statement says: "The UK is saddled with a system that worked very well in a simpler world, but which surely deserves a fresh look in the round: a look unconstrained by past history."

In particular, the society condemns the research assessment exercise, under which university research is funded according to the outcome of quality ratings. It argues that in the early days it encouraged scientists to focus on the research they had long been meaning to do, but that it is now outdated and burdensome. It says academics have been forced to "play the game", rather than concentrate on delivering excellent research. And it criticises the "cliff-like" variations in funding between the different research ratings.

The president of the Royal Society, Lord May, said: "The RAE has now been perverted by many into a one-dimensional totem of the prestige of a university department and, ultimately, of the institution itself."

The society also expresses fears that the RAE is being used to support a move towards further concentration of research funding. It rejects recurring suggestions that there should be a top tier of universities that could be excluded from routine review, describing it as "a premier league you can move into but not be relegated from".

The Royal Society points out that, in general, the two strands of the research funding system are coming up with very similar answers and giving money to the same universities. It says a single-stranded system, possibly based upon the outcome of competitive research tenders, will therefore produce the same results "but with very much less time, trouble and expense".

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