Grants aren’t the only way to support research

Winning a grant is a triumph for any research team but we shouldn't lose sight of the importance of QR funding, say Becky Ioppolo and Steven Wooding

Becky Ioppolo is an Affiliated Researcher at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy, University of Cambridge

Steven Wooding is a Senior Policy Analyst in the Research Strategy Office at the University of Cambridge

The Quality Related (QR) block grant doesn’t often get as much attention as competitive grant funding but it has been recognised as an essential aspect of the UK’s research ecosystem by the Royal Society, British Academy, Wellcome Trust, and Russell Group.

There have been many evaluations of the return-on-investment for competitive or project funding schemes but little analysis of how QR creates value for the university research ecosystem.

QR has been used for large-scale university strategic initiatives, such as starting new departments or funding fellowship cohorts, but we were interested in the less high-profile aspects of QR and how it helps individual academics develop their research.

Supporting new ideas via sabbaticals

Grants from research councils and other external funders are awarded to progress specific, defined ideas, but where do these ideas come from? We know that ideas don’t always arrive discretely as “lightbulb moments” but often develop as “slow hunches”. Project-based funding doesn’t support this slow hunch stage of research but the QR block grant does.

We investigated how the QR block grant (and equivalent discretionary funding) is applied at the University of Cambridge in ways that individual researchers can make use of. Using qualitative and qualitative methods, we found evidence that QR supports the foundational stages of research.

QR funds sabbaticals – time when academics are free from teaching and administrative responsibilities – which allows them to pursue research that they deem useful.

We heard stories of academics using their sabbaticals to write a popular science book, to conduct research that was unfashionable or underappreciated by research council funding panels and only subsequently recognised as important, to examine existing data from a new perspective, and to simply follow interesting rabbit holes of inquiry turning up valuable new avenues for research.

Some academics told us that sabbaticals were the only time they could carry out significant research because their teaching and administration workload was too demanding to make meaningful progress at other times.

We also attempted to see how sabbaticals influence researchers’ publication outputs. This productivity boost is challenging to demonstrate empirically because there are so many variables at play but we did find a noticeable increase in working papers produced in the immediate months following academics’ sabbaticals. We take this to mean that sabbaticals are driving the development of new ideas.

Other ways QR adds value

Looking at HR data, we could see how QR funding is used to bridge researchers between fixed-term contracts. This application of discretionary funding allows talent and institutional knowledge to be retained at the university and reduces some precarity in fixed-term roles.

QR is one of the mechanisms that allows for permanent contracts at universities. We found that most researchers – even those in permanent roles in grant-intensive disciplines – have breaks between grants. Therefore, in the absence of QR, permanent appointments could be less feasible.

We also heard how QR is used to support researcher-led interdisciplinary networks across the university, which can counteract the disciplinary structure of departments and schools. These networks get academics together to tackle complex topics such as Digital Humanities and Conservation, and leverage funding from other external sources.

Some academics and administrators told us the flexibility of QR supports a reduced teaching load for early career researchers or occasionally start-up packages for discretionary spending.

Alongside the time provided by sabbaticals, there were also funds for seed grant funding schemes, which are useful for starting up or finishing off discrete pieces of work. For some research projects where consumables costs are low but not zero, a small grant of even £1,500 or £5,000 can be the difference between kicking off or finishing off a piece of work. The institutional nature of QR allows those small amounts of money to be deployed in an efficient manner.

Let’s not ignore institutional discretionary funding

Our research project demonstrates how QR is central to a broad research system, which fits well with ambitions for university research. Not only does QR make up a significant portion of the research income at the University of Cambridge (£127 million, more than one-sixth of the university’s total research income of £706 million in 2019-2020) but QR supports research in ways that grant schemes cannot.

Regular funding for sabbaticals or seed grant schemes may never be as glamorous as winning a grant. QR may never get as much attention as new science initiatives, such as the government’s recently introduced Bill to establish a new Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA) but that doesn’t mean QR isn’t important. Our project sheds light on the foundational resources that QR provides upon which academics’ new ideas can blossom.

For more details on our project’s methods and findings, the authors’ report is available on the Bennett Institute for Public Policy’s website.

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