Willetts: I don’t want research restricted

Funds are allocated on project quality not desire to support elite, says minister. Chris Parr reports

June 27, 2013

David Willetts, the universities and science minister, has maintained that he does not have an agenda for further concentrating research budget allocations on elite institutions.

Speaking as part of a launch event for the Times Higher Education 100 Under 50 2013 rankings of young universities, Mr Willetts said that research funding should be based on the projects that were bidding for money, not just the institutions where they were based.

The government has been accused of creating a concentration of research in elite universities by asking for funding to be cut for lower-rated research and focusing capital investment on large projects involving such institutions.

But Mr Willetts told the audience at The Sunday Times Festival of Education at Wellington College in Berkshire on 21 June: “I certainly don’t want to see further concentration in the sense of restricting research activity to a smaller number of universities.

“It is very important that if there is a strong department or a strong strand of research in a particular discipline within a university, it is recognised.”

Mr Willetts was also asked about the funding balance between blue-sky research and “applied impactful” research, a question that has become more controversial owing to the impact measure in the forthcoming research excellence framework.

But the minister said he did not wish to see blue-sky research missing out on cash.

“As part of protecting the science budget, we have maintained funding to the Royal Society simply to identify very smart researchers who they say should have a grant for seven years to get on with work without anything further being expected of them.”

He added: “What constitutes blue sky and what constitutes impact are deep questions…but I have no desire to reduce the imaginative blue-sky thinking of our excellent academic community.”

Meanwhile, the minister also defended the UK’s public spending on higher education, stating that other countries were also facing problems.

“The grass is not automatically greener on the other side,” he said, highlighting federal sequester cuts in the US, concerns in Germany that too much research funding is being directed towards green energy projects, and a “painful debate” in Singapore about long-term science funding.

He suggested that one way universities could save money was through better joint working.

“One area where we could see more concentration is the sharing of kit,” he said, praising the work of the N8 group of northern universities, which has set up a database of scientific equipment that can be used by all member institutions.

“Individual universities were taking quite big purchasing decisions and buying expensive pieces of kit when there was something 50 miles away that could be shared in [another] physics department.”

chris.parr@tsleducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

In many ways, these statements by Willetts are encouraging, but they do seem rather at odds with the REF. For instance, "research funding should be based on the projects that were bidding for money, not just the institutions where they were based" - well, yes, that's always been true, but we're currently engaged in an exercise that is geared up solely to allocating money to institutions. The REF is generally not good news for those involved in a "strong strand of research within a particular discipline" if they are part of a larger unit of assessment that overall doesn't have a lot of 4* outputs. And then we hear: “What constitutes blue sky and what constitutes impact are deep questions…but I have no desire to reduce the imaginative blue-sky thinking of our excellent academic community.” But the REF gives considerable weighting to "impact" in funding allocations. So if this is not just hand-waving, then to achieve the goals in his speech, it seems that Willetts would need to reduce the proportion of research funding allocated through QR. Having read the arguments in this blogpost - http://telescoper.wordpress.com/2013/06/25/university-research-funding-will-the-axe-fall-on-qr/ - I'm wondering if there's a coded message that the proportion of research funding allocated through QR will be abolished or greatly reduced.

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