James Coe is Associate Editor for research and innovation at Wonkhe, and a partner at Counterculture
It has been a couple of years of frenetic policy making. In between global Britain, moonshots, and science superpowers, imagining even the near future of research policy has been like wading through fog. In announcing their funding budgets for 2022-25 Research England has offered the sector a guiding hand when it needs it most.
There are of course no certainties when it comes to Government spending, but it is enormously refreshing to have some sense of the future when all else feels so short term. In total, funding for research will grow from £1.95bn in 2021-22, to £2.12bn in 2022-23, to an expected £2.13bn in 2023-24. Over the same period funding for knowledge exchange activities will grow by £23m.
Across the sector there has been significant debate over QR funding. Whether there would be a rebalancing away from the golden triangle. If the allocations would hugely disadvantage some providers. And what QR means for levelling up (by its nature almost nothing.) The overall quantum of QR funding will grow from around £1.79bn this academic year to £1.97bn in academic years 2022-23 and 2023-24. There is a significant increase in mainstream QR funding and an eye-catching 36 per cent increase in the business research element of funding. This means the policy direction of greater university and business links has some additional funding to make it happen. A joined-up plan if I ever did see one.
There is always a certain mystique about the details of the funding formula. You might hear whispers that there is a black box which spits out unexpected or uneven allocations. Or a secret cabal interpreting data to their own ends. Much more mundanely the funding formulae reflect the overall improvement in research performance in REF2021. Flowing from this the features of the mainstream QR funding mechanisms remain unchanged. This includes the current relationship between 4* and 3* research in QR allocations.
It is also worth noting that the circular letter provided to vice chancellors makes a specific reference to “the significant contribution to culture and quality of life from the Arts and Humanities.” At a time where there is a thrum of commentators questioning the value, purpose, and contributions of these pursuits maintaining proportional funding and including an implicit defence of the way arts and humanities make life worth living, deserves recognition.
The sector will breathe a sigh of relief and look into the immediate future with a bit more optimism than it did yesterday. There will, of course, be institutional and geographical variations and inflation will erode funding over time, but more funding and more certainty are welcome in these uncertain times. A stable funding settlement coupled with the expansion of knowledge exchange activities gives the sector a little bit more bandwidth to work on the very core of its collective mission. To push the boundaries of human understanding and in doing so improve the conditions of all of those who encounter its work.