Wicked problems: are we doing too much research?

Is it time for a rethink in how universities structure research culture? David Bell and Andy Westwood challenge the research community

Are we doing too much research?

David Bell, Vice Chancellor, University of Sunderland

52,000 individuals were entered in the 2014 Research Excellence Framework. It is likely to be even more in 2021. But was that – is that – too many or too few? No-one would seriously argue that everyone entered for REF 2014 was a potential Nobel prize winner. But just how many people does it take to produce world-leading research that is the envy of the rest of the world?

While conducting research in every discipline is fundamental to the advancement of knowledge, we might query the random way in which it is configured across our universities.

Controversial it may be but a lot of published research is undistinguished in quality – by any measure – and read by relatively few people. But is that a price worth paying for the very best?

More radically, what proportion of academics engaged in research – REF-related or not – does a university need to be, well, a university? Would it be better to have fewer active researchers, in the traditional sense of those engaged in the pursuit of new knowledge?

Having a different model could give equal standing to university teachers and teaching, those engaged in pedagogical scholarship, and academics focused on different applied activities – all of which are distinguishing marks of a higher education institution.

Might it too be a way of addressing stress and burn-out if we moved away from our very peculiar, and narrow, definition of what counts as research “productivity”?

Of course, the current approach is deeply embedded culturally, with its associated incentives and funding mechanisms. And change could undermine quality and/or concentrate research in fewer institutions. Worse still, it might choke the pipeline of future world-class researchers.

Hard questions maybe but here is the hardest one of them all. Is the size of the research base in the UK, and how it is organised, less a wicked issue and more like the great unmentionable in British higher education?

We’re not fully prepared to translate new R&D funding into productivity gains

Andy Westwood, University of Manchester

This might not feel like a wicked problem for some universities, but it is. Since 1997 governments of all stripes have chosen to invest in science and research because of the promise it offers for improving productivity.

Gordon Brown’s big increase to R&D spending in the 2003/04’s ten year Science and Innovation Framework, George Osborne’s protection of science and real terms increase at 2015 CSR, Hammond and May’s uplift of £7bn in 2016 and now Boris Johnson’s promise to double R&D funding in this parliament. Successive elections have also shown rare political agreement as all main UK parties have committed to 2.4-3 per cent R&D targets.

All have done so, at least in part, because science and research has long been one of our best bets for unlocking the UK’s long term productivity problem. This has been both a national and regional issue with significant underperformance at both levels. Universities have benefitted from this to a significant extent because, compared to other countries, more government R&D funding goes to elite research-intensive institutions. To some extent, all universities have also benefited from a parallel faith in expanding the supply of human capital (and graduates in particular) over the same period.

As the Nobel prizewinning US economist Paul Krugman says “productivity isn’t everything but in the long term it is almost everything”. In the UK it is this long term ambition to improve productivity that will enable government to keep – or not to keep – its many promises on spending and living standards.

Translating this increased R&D investment into productivity performance is our wicked issue as much as has been for successive governments. This new Conservative Government, after it has “got Brexit done” will be focusing on it too. And it needs results at both a national and a regional level.  Many VCs and scientists might not like the idea that politicians fund research at least partly for these outcomes. It is a Faustian deal with Britain’s science base – which has been disproportionately based on basic science and disproportionately concentrated in elite universities when compared to other countries. By comparison our translational and applied activity is much less well established.

So we can expect increases. But we can expect new approaches to spending the money. An Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) is one championed, like the doubling of R&D funding overall, by Dominic Cummings. Rachel Wolf, one of the authors of the Conservative manifesto, has has pointed out addressing regional inequality will be another. Both have looked to Richard Jones of Sheffield University for some of the answers and particularly at his Resurgence of the Regions paper.

So a renewed ambition (backed by substantial increases in public funding) looks to be on the cards. If the promises are fulfilled then it offers the opportunity of maintaining global excellence (as we define it) and rebuilding innovation and R&D in the regions. It also offers the possibility of translating R&D across the public and private sectors into elusive improvements in both national and regional productivity.

But achieving this is a long term wicked issue. For universities, there are many questions. Are the right institutions in place to deliver on these ambitions? David Willetts, amongst others, has some doubts. Are the right incentives and cultures in place for academics? Both applied research and “place” feel far less developed in universities (especially the most research-intensive) and for academics than they could or ought to be.

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