MPs have called on the UK’s research councils to share funding more evenly, challenging the concentration of resources in the “golden triangle” and the biomedical sciences, and suggesting that additional support should be provided for small, specialist institutions.
The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee’s report, Balance and Effectiveness of Research and Innovation Spending, published on 12 September, expresses concern about an analysis that showed that around 41 per cent of government-supported research was concentrated in London, Oxford and Cambridge.
They say that allocation of research funding according to assessed research excellence accentuates the so-called “Matthew effect”, under which, as any research “cluster” grows, it becomes more likely to be successful in securing future funding, leading to further concentration.
However, MPs say that regional scientific strengths “will need to be harnessed and cultivated” if the government is to meet its target of spending 2.4 per cent of gross domestic product by 2027, and that UK Research and Innovation should aim “to build further research excellence outside of its existing predominance in the south-east of England”.
They say that the £32 million Strength in Places Fund – designed to support emerging research excellence – is “too modest to drive any significant rebalancing of investment given the strength of existing drivers of increasing regional concentration in funding”. Its value, the panel says, should be increased “substantially”.
The committee says that it finds the case made by University of Sheffield professors Richard Jones and James Wilsdon, in their 2018 report The Biomedical Bubble, “compelling”. This warned that biomedical research had been allowed to “distract attention and draw resources away from alternative ways of improving health outcomes”, and argued that more funding should go towards research into public health and social care.
UKRI, the MPs say, “should widen this approach and conduct relevant cost-benefit analysis of larger research areas within different disciplines to establish whether R&D spending remains productive”.
The panel also expresses concern that the seven-year cycles between assessments under the research excellence framework, the results of which are used to allocate quality-related research funding, “create barriers for smaller but potentially fast-growing institutions or areas of excellence [which] receive lower QR allocations”.
The MPs recommend that UKRI should review “whether additional support for these institutions should be provided, possibly through specific gearing of investment across the REF period, through additional review periods for smaller bodies, or through separate QR stream for smaller and specialist institutions”.
Elsewhere in the report, the MPs call for a significant and “frontloaded” increase in government spending on research in order to meet the 2.4 per cent target, and for “roadmaps” on how the overall goal will be reached to be published by the end of this year.
They also highlight continuing uncertainty over the strategies that will be pursued by UKRI, which was formally established in April 2018.
Norman Lamb, the committee’s chair, said: “While UK research is world-leading and we have many world-leading universities and research institutions, excellence and funding are concentrated in a small number of institutions, in a few regions of the UK.
“The Government’s Strength in Places Fund is a key tool in spreading excellence to different regions. However, it is too modest to drive any significant rebalancing of investment. That’s why we’ve called for it to be substantially increased.”
UKRI said that it welcomed the report. “We note its findings and recommendations, and are considering these as a matter of priority,” a spokeswoman said.
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