The UK needs to “think carefully” about the proportion of national research funding that should be focused on world-class science compared with the foundations of such work, a vice-chancellor has said.
Paul Boyle, president and vice-chancellor of the University of Leicester, said that many of the best researchers did not begin their careers at the prestigious institutions that they end up working in such as Imperial College London and the universities of Cambridge and Oxford.
The start of research careers and incremental developments in science need to be supported as well as world-class work, he argued.
Professor Boyle, who was until 2014 the head of the Economic and Social Research Council, was speaking at the conference of the Association of Research Managers and Administrators in Brighton on 2 June.
He said that the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s decision to focus quality-related funding more heavily on 4*, or world-class, research as judged by the research excellence framework is “persuasive”.
“There is no question that as a nation we need to be producing more 4* world-class research…But it does raise interesting questions about the concentration of science,” Professor Boyle said.
“We need to think carefully as a nation about how much of the national funding, whether it is from the REF, research councils or wherever it comes from, should be focused on world-class research and how much on the foundations,” he said.
“We all know that many of the best researchers that work at Imperial, Cambridge and Oxford and other institutions did not necessarily start in those institutions and it is the beginnings of their careers that we need to make sure are also supported,” he added.
He said that many scientific breakthroughs build on incremental developments. “If we carry on concentrating too much then there is a risk to some of the breadth that we have in the UK,” he added.
The UK is unique in Europe as it has a “very deep” breadth of research that makes a “really powerful statement” about its higher education, he said.