The universal basic research grant: funding research for the 21st century

David Payne introduces the idea of a universal basic research grant as a solution to the problems faced in funding early stage research.

What is the future of the research funding landscape in the UK, and what changes should be made to the system to enable investment in research and development (R&D) to deliver the outcomes we all need and expect? Should we aspire to be different, to be bold and innovative?

These are crucial questions ahead of this year’s government spending review, and issues that have grown in urgency since the UK government announced plans to increase the percentage of GDP spent on research from its current level of 1.7% to 2.4 % (the OECD average). This percentage equates to an uplift of around £21bn extra spent on R&D in the UK by 2027, assuming the current ratio of 2:1 industry to government funding, this would mean about an extra £14bn per annum from industry and £7.5bn per annum from the public sector.

A question of balance

This proposed uplift comes soon after recent large investments in UK research and development (R&D) by the government in strategically important areas for the UK economy, with schemes such as the Industrial Challenge Strategy Fund (ICSF) and the Global Challenge Research Fund (GCRF), to name just a few. But, on the other hand, the core budgets for research councils that underpin both fundamental and applied research activities are shrinking in the next few years.

It is critical that the government continues to support key aspects of the economy by investing in large-scale R&D, as well as funding effective innovation and translation pathways. But there is a debate to be had as to how very early stage research, performed mainly in universities, can be supported in a way that accelerates the prosperity of the nation as a whole. By underfunding our early stage research pipeline, we run the risk of running the innovation reservoir dry in the next 10 to 20 years. The question for the UK remains: how do we balance the excellence in early stage research performed in our university sector, with the desire to capitalise on our scientific discoveries and translate that into wealth for country as a whole?

The universal basic research grant

I propose a simple and effective mechanism to distribute funding across the community, based on the concept on the universal basic income (UBI), known as the Universal Basic Research Grant (UBRG). I believe funding the community in this way will lead to an increase in the amount of high-risk, high-return research performed in the research community, and serve as a long term commitment to areas of research that have yet to realise their potential.

In 2017, the Higher Education and Research Act enshrined into English law the dual-funding system, which distributes funds both via the Research Councils (peer reviewed grants) and a a block grant using the Research Excellence Framework (REF) outcomes. Despite the success of these distribution models, proposal success rates for some research councils are decreasing significantly. On top of that, the Matthew Effect results in a disproportionate accumulation of resources by already successful research groups. This reduces effective competition, and allows research narratives to be entrenched by an ever decreasing circle of individuals, and further narrows diversity for new and radical thinking.

It is generally accepted that investment in R&D is recognised as an excellent way to improve both the economic and social future and underlying prosperity, with an (underestimated) 20% return on investment for publicly funded R&D. The UK higher education sector is also world-leading, but we must not become complacent, and rely on historical legacy. We must be innovative with how we fund innovation, and be increasingly willing to take risks.

The trouble with the current model

Universities currently receive a block allocation of quality-related (QR) funding determined by the REF exercise, which helps to financially bridge the delivery of sponsored research co-subsidised with student fee income. In principle, QR is meant to fund research activities too risky, speculative, or “unfashionable” for other means of support. It is also meant to take a long term strategic view of ensuring that a breadth of diversity of research activities is maintained with the higher education sector.

However in recent years the ever-increasing cost of research means that many universities use QR to support research activities in national strategic priority areas, in the hope of securing additional funding. Again, this limits the diversity of the research base, and puts the UK at a competitive disadvantage in being able to respond quickly to new early stage research developments.

The alignment of an industrial strategy with its strong university research base is critically important, and will begin the transition away from the UK being a country that supports global industrial research efforts to one that also supports an increasing amount of new UK-based industries (for example the growth of “Mittlestand” companies is seen as critical to securing prosperity – particularly in the post-industrial heartlands). The problem the UK faces is that, while we do have a strong manufacturing base in some areas, it is still relatively small in size and scope relative to the size of the UK economy. This naturally limits the impact of industrially strategic research funding.

If funding is disproportionately channelled into the sectors where the UK is already very strong, capacity for research that does not directly align with these areas can quickly become isolated and wither. This would damage the diversity and capacity of the research base for the long term, and see researchers shifting from their own areas of expertise to follow the latest initiative, or – even worse – leave the UK altogether to move somewhere that enables them to pursue their own research vision.

Funding a universal basic research grant

The first question about a UBRG scheme is “What will it cost?”. To implement it correctly will take significant resource, but achievable in the scale of the 2.4% target. The UBRG scheme should support a modest research programme – and for the sciences this would be an estimated £50,000 per researcher each year. The funding would be used for PhD students, PDRA support, consumables, travel, conference attendance, supporting visiting researchers and early-stage innovation activity to name but a few. But the question remains who should be eligible for the UBRG?

In REF2014 there were 29,000 academics submitted to categories that come under the EPSRC, NERC, STFC or BBSRC remit, and if UBRG was to be awarded to these REF-submitted researchers this would equate to an additional cost of about £1.3bn per year, in comparison to the annual EPSRC budget of around £900m. REF could certainly provide a framework for distribution, although how a UBRG could be allocated within the new REF2021 framework remains up for debate.

Unlocking innovation

Today, peer review is the dominant mechanism to distribute research funding, yet some analysis has shown it to be risk-averse and biased against speculative and unorthodox research. In this sense perhaps we fund too much research that is exploitative of known research, and do not fund enough research that is explorative, the outcomes of which will generate the research priorities and prosperity of the future. This is compounded further as the budgets for peer-review proposals shrink, and a single critical review can result in an otherwise excellent proposal being unfunded. The UBRG would remedy this by providing scientists with long-term, secure funding to exploit new areas of research.

Such research could also stimulate collaboration with the private sector. In one regard, industry could find UBRG appealing as it will generate a larger pool of blue-skies ideas which could crowd-in further investment. This would be particularly attractive to SMEs which often find the current innovation framework too complicated and bureaucratic to justify the expense and time to engage with it. As stated in the recent Royal Academy of Engineering’s recommendation for uplifting R&D investment by business, there is a need for increasing the opportunities for flexible funding and streamlining the process to apply for funding.

Productivity is a significant problem in the UK, and the HE sector is no different, with increasing effort expended to achieve similar or diminishing returns, and the UBRG would reduce time wasted writing unsuccessful grants. Talented people are the UK’s greatest resource, and UBRG will give people more time to actually doing science. This is not to say that the grant writing process is not in itself important, as ideas are honed and hypotheses developed, but with the security of a UBRG, more time can be taken to develop fledgling ideas, acquire preliminary results and build stronger methodologies, which will ultimately lead to better research proposals being submitted.

International impact

With the prospect of the UK leaving the EU, a UBRG scheme would also contribute to making the UK a highly attractive destination for researchers around the world. There are some examples of similar schemes to what is proposed here, such as the Canadian Discovery Grant, although this is still relatively risk averse with significant peer review, coupled to success rates of around 66% and annual awards of ~£15-25k per researcher depending on experience. The UBRG proposed here would also send a strong signal about the value the UK places in funding research, and that the UK is confident in its own ability to adopt new funding models to retain and attract international talent. This is particularly important in a time of uncertainty regarding Brexit, where the (probable) loss of access to EU/ERC funding streams would be a financial and psychological blow to the UK research base.

The recent landmark Royal Society “Research Culture” conference, focused on a number of issues such as mental health, bullying and diversity in research, and a recent report showed that 90% of research funding from EPSRC over the last 10 years was awarded to male researchers. The UBRG would address some of the issues in application and peer-review, by providing under-represented groups in STEM, a stable and secure guaranteed source of funding free from the bias of peer review. In addition, workplace bullying has been related to the stress placed upon academics to secure research funding, highlighted by the President of the Royal Society, Venki Ramakrishnan. The implementation of UBRG would mitigate this to a certain degree. In addition, a UBRG scheme would support the “place agenda” and the regions of the UK, through providing a stimulative effect on the researchers in areas that has a lower per capita research income.

We need a funding model fit for the 21st century, and not continue trying to reshape a model built for the previous one. It is also fitting that 100 years after the report from Lord Haldane, with UBRG we can provide the means for individual researchers to take more risks, and be more creative. To unlock the fullest potential in the UK science and engineering research base, and couple it firmly to innovation we must collectively free the brightest minds and grease the wheels of research. We must seize this opportunity to present a bold new way of supporting and underpinning our research base. The UBRG would be a first step that could go a long way in balancing our approach to research and innovation.

3 responses to “The universal basic research grant: funding research for the 21st century

  1. £50k doesn’t cover the full costs of employing a single full time grade 7 PDRA in most institutions. A proliferation of 8 month PDRA contracts would not be a marker of progress.

    You can also imagine that as soon as eligibility criteria are published, “departmental procedures” would appear to adjust particular staff into or out of eligible positions.

    “Pump priming” grants already exist and have appropriate peer review. More of these would undoubtedly be welcome.

  2. This article operates under the illusion that the key issue for increasing innovation in the UK is ” basic research in the sciences”. The reality of our industrial structure is that there are poor connections between research and its ultimate tangible application and inadequate management of innovation and start-up processes. There is, of course, a need for more research but there is an even more urgent need for using more of what we are generating now and using that more effectively. These are management issues, not basic research issues. Money put into improving management of the processes for moving research into valuable industrial use will pay off much more quickly. Hence, the notion that Basic Research Grants or the equivalent should be confined to the “sciences” is simply misplaced. We need to invest in innovation processes as well as in the underlying knowledge.

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