The way that university research is funded in the UK is unstainable.
This was the case in 1998 when the Wellcome Trust, in partnership with the Blair government, bailed out universities through the Joint Infrastructure Fund (JIF). And it is still the case 25 years later with Paul Nurse concluding in his review of the research, development, and innovation landscape that “the financial sustainability of the public research funding for universities needs to be urgently addressed.”
The data speak for themselves. According to OfS data, in 2020-21 research lost universities in England and Northern Ireland about £4 billion – a deficit that was largely made up by international student fees. In an environment when the unit of resource for domestic students is declining (fees for undergraduates in England have been fixed since 2017 at £9,250, lately in a period of double-digit inflation) and there is political anxiety about increases in premium fee-paying international students, universities find themselves in a very difficult place.
Nurse recommends a wholesale review of the research funding system, including competitive grants and quality related (QR) funding, with a view to ensuring that all “end to end” aspects of the research endeavour are funded sustainably.
Without the radical reform that Nurse seems to be suggesting it is inevitable that we will see universities posting increased financial deficits over the coming years, largely driven by the underfunding of research. The trouble is that this is not a new situation.
The 2004 Science and Innovation Framework committed the government to “provide resources over subsequent spending review periods to enable Research Councils to provide close to the full economic costs of their university-conducted research by early in the next decade.”
Despite the government accepting the findings of the Nurse Review, given this issue has remained unaddressed by consecutive governments, one must be sceptical about whether reform will come about. But if it does, and as Nurse points out, we have to avoid a “patchwork” response and take a radical approach.
A radical mindset
It seems to me there are two “first principle” questions that need to be answered in adopting a radical mindset. The first is whether we want a system that treats all disciplines to be equal. By this I stress I mean equal in terms of costs, not merit. (We know, for example it is, on average, cheaper to do history research than it is to do clinical research). The second is, do we want a performance related research funding system? These questions are expressed in the figure below.
Currently we answer yes to both of those questions – that is history research is funded through a combination of QR funding determined by REF results and research grants from AHRC (and others) using broadly the same principles as clinical research is funded.
But what about the other quadrants in the figure – you could have a system where research is funded differently for different disciplines in an uncompetitive way (top left quadrant). This would be a system where, for example, block grants are given directly to universities for supporting research and the university leadership decides how to allocate that funding. You could also envisage a system where a block grant is allocated by disciplinary groups, for example, humanities, life sciences etc. but on a negotiated i.e. uncompetitive basis (top right quadrant).
Both these models are quite compelling from an organisational management perspective, but are probably undesirable as they are open to nepotism and barriers to entry, are likely to undermine research quality and could be a threat to academic freedom. Nevertheless, they do offer a radical alternative to the current system and as such are worth acknowledging.
A more acceptable alternative would be to provide an un-competitive block grant (i.e. QR-like funding) to the “cheaper” disciplines while maintaining a competitive (REF-like) element for the “expensive” disciplines (bottom left quadrant). This would be workable and may address some of the concerns about bureaucracy that is raised around REF but, for understandable reasons, may not be acceptable as it could widen existing perceived differences between STEM and STEAM subjects.
It’s always in the last place you look
Perhaps not surprising, in search of a “radical” solution I come back to the dual support system (i.e. the bottom right quadrant). Intriguingly, around the same time as JIF was being worked on in 1997, the then Chief Scientific Advisor to the Government, Bob May, wrote a seminal commentary in Science in which he argued that one of the reasons that the UK was successful scientifically (as measured by citations) was because of the competitive nature of its research funding.
Some 25 years later, as Nurse points out, that competitiveness is under threat – not necessarily because of the dual support system but because it has been consistently underfunded. As argued before on Wonkhe, there are three funding channels through which the £4 billion deficit could be met: by directly funding the full economic costs of research, in line with the commitment made nearly two decades ago; by supporting charities to pay the full economic costs of the research they fund; and by increasing block grant/QR funding.
But universities should be careful in not making this (another) ask for more cash – in my view, in return for the government making the system financially sustainable, universities should accept that there will be a decline in the amount of overall research activity. That is: fund less research but ensure that research is funded sustainability.
What I find intriguing is that over the past few years when I have raised this in various fora it has been dismissed as being harmful to the sector. I would, in fact, contend the opposite is true – to continue to run a financially unsustainable research funding system is and will continue to create great harm as Nurse points out. And perhaps that is the rub – everyone will need to move on their existing positions to come to a post-Nurse sustainable research funding system. That in and of itself would be radical.