Should you choose to accept it...

March 7, 1997

Does funding council policy reveal a dangerous enslavement to government dogma? Researchers beware: the Department of Trade and Industry wants you as a new recruit, warns John Griffith. We are facing the most important instance ever of interference in this country's system of funding university research. It amounts to an abandonment of objectivity and is by far the most serious invasion of university research ever undertaken by Government.

Already we have seen a gross breach of the principle that some contribution to basic infrastructure is payable to every active researcher. University teachers are obliged by their contracts to undertake research, and their promotion may well depend on it. Basic needs vary but provision has been made through the research grants which also contribute to their salaries. Every active researcher, one might assume, is entitled to this facility.

These funds are calculated according to the number of researchers in the subject, the relative costs of providing basic need, and the outcome of the research assessment exercise. Contrary to claims by the funding councils, RAEstandards vary from subject to subject. To some extent this is inevitable: comparisons between, say, history and pure mathematics being impossible. But we never see the total amounts allotted to each subject.

Now the Higher Education Funding Council for England has ruled that no department rated below 3 shall have any share in the handout. Some panels also graded individual researchers. What is the position of the researcher graded at 3 or above in a department graded below 3? Is not the researcher being deprived of resources that are rightfully his or hers?

But the major interference in the system is yet to come. HEFCE has declared unambiguously: "The council also wishes to look forward and to be able to shape the distribution of funds, ensuring that the overall balance of distribution fulfils its objectives and responds to national priorities. It therefore wishes to include a policy factor in setting the quanta which will allow it to influence the distribution between subjects, based on national needs and international standing . . . In future the council proposes to look first at whether the institutions themselves are responding to national needs. However, it may also wish to reinforce institutional decisions or to anticipate areas of need." (my italics).

All this has been inspired by the Department of Trade and Industry's Technology Foresight Programme. Its steering group consists largely of industrialists and government officials. It follows what it calls "a largely market-driven approach" and declares its primary purpose to be "wealth-creation" to meet "national needs".

When the group looked at the funding councils, it found that allocations of grant to subjects had been "undirected (that is, they were spent at the discretion of the universities themselves)". Clearly such irresponsible conduct had to be corrected. It recommended universities should "embed" the findings of the Foresight programme in their strategic plans, and use the funding formulae the better to reward and encourage researchers who promoted Foresight findings.

If the funding councils achieve their aim of putting under state control all major decisions on res-earch projects, especially on which subject areas are to be given top priority, this can easily be extended into state-determined programmes of work administered by Government-controlled research councils. University research will become a DTI agent.

John Griffith is emeritus professor of public law at the London School of Economics.

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