One of us has a five-year-old who, when she wakes up on Christmas morning, can be fairly confident that Father Christmas will have left her a box of Lego.
But imagine if Junior’s box of Lego turns out to contain only one kind of brick, while her friend receives a box with many different kinds. For a while they play happily at building houses; but then the friend decides to build a tree, and then a car and a horse. Soon she has a whole village, all mounted on green base-board. Junior is still building stand-alone houses. It is all her bricks allow her to do. They are excellent houses but, in the absence of anything to enliven their surroundings, or bind them together, they amount to the bleakest of estates.
Lego offers an instructive comparison with the UK research base. Project funding from the research councils is enormously valuable, rewarding the best peer-reviewed competitive bids and delivering discrete outputs and impacts. But we need more than that. We also need quality-related funding.
Awarded as block grants to universities, like a big bag of varied Lego bricks, QR funding can be invisible to academics, often being rebranded as “university money” before it reaches the individual departments or research teams whose past performance determines the university’s allocation, via the research excellence framework.
Offering few promises of shiny, headline-grabbing new institutes for them to open, this obscurely named funding stream may strike ministers as a dispensable oddity. In fact, it is the bedrock of the UK’s research base. Without QR funding alongside research council, business, European, charity and Innovate UK funding, universities could end up as little more than contractors delivering individual projects.
Children like receiving presents of Lego because the bricks can be used in unpredictable ways, and combined with wheels and hinges to invent lots of structures. The flexibility and agility of QR similarly allows universities to pursue new ideas, support emerging fields of inquiry and offer stable academic careers – with the freedom in at least some cases to pursue research interests without first gaining approval from funding agencies. It allows universities to support early career researchers beyond employing them as research project assistants. Without it, universities would be under even more pressure to employ all academics either as research contractors on particular research grants or contracts, or as teaching contractors delivering particular courses – making it difficult to integrate teaching and research.
Without QR, it would also take longer to grab new opportunities for business collaboration. Universities would have less ability to explore new multidisciplinary collaborations unless they were first agreed with research funders, or to participate in projects and institutes whose funders pay less than their full cost.
In short, QR breathes greater intellectual life into universities while rewarding excellence and impact through the REF. That is why the government’s pledge to increase it, announced in the new industrial strategy last month, is so welcome. The research base will be able to deliver much more with increased QR funding to complement the 20 per cent funding increase for project funding announced alongside the industrial strategy – particularly as some of the new schemes require universities to contribute some match-funding.
No figure for the increase in QR is given but this year’s Higher Education and Research Act goes some way to protecting the balance of funding between QR and the research councils. QR in England currently stands at £1.6 billion per year, and the figure is about £2 billion across the UK. That is a lot of money – but it supports a lot of people and a lot of research, much of which stimulates investment from businesses and research charities.
The industrial strategy sets out ambitious plans to take research investment in the UK to internationally competitive levels and harvest the benefits of research to bring productivity gains and greater well-being to all parts of the country. It gives Santa a sackful of headline announcements in time for Christmas. But, as he has surely learned, the less flashy presents at the bottom of his sack are often the most valued.
Sarah Chaytor is director of research strategy and policy and Graeme Reid is professor of science and research policy at UCL.