Research funding is not complicated, but how it works is important.
Research is primarily funded in three ways. Much research is supported through UKRI – a non-departmental public body sponsored by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). UKRI brings together seven research councils, Research England, and Innovate UK (the UK’s national innovation agency). The research councils, together with Research England and Innovate UK, fund the research and innovation programmes of universities, businesses, and others. Since it was established in 2018 UKRI has supported nearly 53,000 funding awards with a combined value over £22bn.
And research is often supported by third parties. These include donations and gifts from charities; competitive bids or collaborative funds from industry; or other forms of support from non-governmental bodies. And finally, universities receive a form of research funding known as Quality-related Research funding (QR).
What is QR?
Research England, a part of UKRI, is responsible for the administration of QR (quality-related) funding in England. Broadly, QR funding is designed to give universities the maximum amount of flexibility to pursue the research which they believe is important. It is based on research quality, of which 2/3 is decided through the Research Excellence Framework (REF). The other 1/3 of funding is provided depending on the number of postgraduate research students; the amount of income from charities; the amount of income from business.
Additional funding is provided under the banner of the Global Challenges Research Fund, which suffered significant cuts in 2021 as a result of the UK government’s decision to reduce spending on international aid. As the latter element is directed toward a specific purpose, it is often debated whether this represents true QR.
There are further nuances in the allocation of QR funding. This is because through its link through the REF mainstream QR is weighted against three factors: research quality; the social, economic, and cultural impact of research; and the research environment. There is also additional weighting for London, and for some specific programmes. This programme weighting is not too dissimilar to the way in which OfS allocates some of its recurrent funding.
What QR does
In total, we have a research funding system which allows national priorities to be incentivised through competition, universities to raise their own funds through collaborations, and for risky, unusual, early, or unfashionable research to be funded through QR. The fact that much of this funding is allocated via the use of the results of an expert review process ensures that it rests on a rigorous assessment of the quality of the UK’s research and impact.
The great benefit of QR is the freedom that it brings. It allows universities to pursue projects that might not otherwise be funded, and it crowds in research from other sources (including UKRI). The nature of research and innovation is that it is unpredictable. Success emerges from places we may not expect, collaboration is born from the freedom to explore unusual paths, and no competition could ever predict the research futures which are yet to realise. Some QR-funded research will take the form of the necessary preliminary work that lays the foundations of large-scale future projects. Not all of it will bear fruit. However, it is in the discovery of the things that do not yet work that we might come closer to those that will. The friction of the close, nearly worked, not quite there yet, against the whetstone of trial, review, and error, sparks new inventions into life.
The spirit of research
It is also worth noting that as government seeks ways to make our research system less bureaucratic and more responsive to the urgent challenges of our time, we have a mechanism in QR which already does just that. Programmes like the Advanced Research and Invention Agency are designed explicitly with some of the spirit of QR in mind. How do you allow researchers to spend more time doing research with the least possible constraints on their funding and time? An important advantage which QR holds over parallel funding streams is that it is connected to institutions and therefore to places. QR is embedded within existing infrastructures, resources, and teams, allowing for continuity in multi-year programmes, and for the growth of existing specialisation.
QR, like every other funding method, is not perfect. There are fundamental questions of whether QR entrenches existing advantages rather than spreading research funding more widely. It sits uneasily with a levelling up agenda where trade-offs between opportunity for growing latent research assets may initially mean investing in potential rather than achievement. And the freedom of the spend means that accountability for the outlay of public money may not always be as clear as in direct awards.
Despite these challenges, if we believe that the UK is a leader in research, that academic freedom is a precursor to academic excellence, and that bureaucracy can inhibit innovation, then QR must continue to be a central feature of the research funding landscape.