The research funding debate: why size doesn’t matter

This week’s blog post is taken from a piece I wrote for the Guardian.

Research was notable by its absence in the HE white paper, leaving a large hole in the government’s plans for the sector. Recognition of its importance to higher education and its inter-relationship with issues related to the teaching of undergraduates, which features so prominently in the document, should have been included. Research has no need of revolution but as a central tenet of UK higher education, it seems incongruous not to build other policies on the foundation that it provides.

University Alliance institutions are proud of the world-leading research that they undertake. They have proven their quality through the national, peer-based assessment of research quality (the RAE) and are confident of doing so again in REF2014. Our report; Funding Research Excellence, published today provides compelling evidence that research should continue to be funded on the basis of excellence alone. There are many examples of small research units in Alliance institutions that undertake world-leading research and are recognised as such; they have no need to grow in order to prove themselves. Indeed our research shows that quality is a driver of scale and not vice-versa. We can be confident in stating that this is the case for the vast majority of disciplines.

The arguments about research funding have been the same for more than a decade and they generally fall between two opposing camps. Those that believe that we should concentrate research funding into fewer institutions with greater scale, and those that seek to distribute the funding on the basis of quality alone to ensure that the money follows excellence. There is a school of thought that suggests we need a ‘critical mass’ in order to carry out world-leading research. This is wrong and we now have the evidence to prove it.

Our report also demonstrates that there is no significant correlation between productivity and research unit size. Any funding metric based on scale would not improve productivity. In fact, the evidence is clear; it could even have the effect of excluding some of the very best units from funding. Let us be in no doubt about it – taking money away from high-performing, small research units would wither the UK research-base and damage our global reputation for excellence and innovation.

With scarce public resources, it is imperative to chart a way through all political pressure and ensure that funding follows quality. The stakes are high; the long-term health and sustainability of UK research must be protected. Future local, regional and national economic growth depends on it.

The government says it seeks to fund research on the basis of excellence. However, the erroneous assumption that ‘critical mass’ is a driver of excellence creeps in from time to time. The BIS director general for Knowledge and Innovation said last month that the government was striving towards creating ‘critical mass’ in order to drive excellence. The government is right to encourage collaboration and pooling of resources but this must not preclude the existence of smaller research units where they can demonstrate excellence with impact.

We must not stifle UK research by seeking only to reward the biggest. They are by no means always the best. To improve the international standing of UK research we must continue to run an open and competitive system for research funding, based on quality alone.


Further reading