Basic income: all roads lead back to the REF

November 23, 2017

I was intrigued by the proposals on basic research income, as, I expect, were any researchers whose individual income is below the mean (“‘Basic income’ to fund research”, News, 12 October). The idea of being able to spend my time doing high-quality research rather than trying to convince others that I carry out high-quality research (eliminating the research excellence framework and all its perverse incentives) is a welcome one. However, we should be careful what we wish for: a universal basic research income will likely result in a different set of perverse incentives.

First, universities will inevitably find a way to skim off overheads, space charges and the like from a researcher’s basic income. Institutional revenues will come to depend on staff numbers, and as the income is independent of outputs or quality, this will drive universities to hire large numbers of early career researchers, applying downward pressure on salaries and removing any incentive to promote career progression.

Second, universities will need to find a way to continue funding their expensive superlabs. Early career researchers will likely be pressured (or required) to affiliate themselves to one of the existing superlabs, “tithing” their personal basic income to some common “pot” to which they would then need to bid – but with little incentive for the superlab directors to involve these “cash cow” young researchers in key research.

Third, there is the risk that the Treasury will see a shift to a universal basic research income as a convenient means to disguise an overall reduction in total funding. Because funding per researcher is already highly unequal – with many early career researchers spending a number of years on no funding at all – there is an opportunity to generate politically shrewd news stories such as “new scheme reduces total spend on research while significantly increasing funding for large proportion of researchers”.

Finally, the article suggests that the basic income per researcher could be varied depending on “societal value”. In essence, trying to quantify “societal value” is what the REF is about. We would eventually end up right back where we started.

David M. Birch
Senior lecturer, University of Surrey

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