Guardian Live Chat: the Future of Research Funding

This lunchtime I’ll be part of a panel for the Guardian Higher Education Network’s live chat:

Live chat: Securing research funding (Friday 9th Sept, 1-4pm)

This week’s discussion will focus on research funding and the skills researchers (and research support staff) need to be successful in the new funding environment. The context for this is Peter Scott’s recent article on the government’s HE White Paper, which he argues is likely to have a chilling effect on research. The government’s cuts to the teaching budget mean that there will be less stability generally in HE, which has been used to a relatively predictable block grant in the past. Because of this, Scott argues, universities will be forced to react to funder’s short-term priorities rather than make their own long-term plans.

Looking more widely, there has been a great deal of discussion in both the mainstream media and blogosphere since the release of the Browne review less than a year ago on the future direction of Higher Education. The central question has been whether the Coalition’s policy will harm HE or – as the government claims – give students more “choice”.

Stefan Collini’s recent demolition of the HE White Paper in the London Review of Books (see also William Cullerne Bown’s thoughtful response) is a clear articulation of one side of this argument. Collini sees the white paper as an attack on the idea of university as a public good and a mechanism for social mobility. Others, such as Richard Hall at DMU, argue that the debate should instead be framed in terms of the commodification of higher education, and that any response needs to begin with a critique of the idea of a university. Put simply: is it an institution which exists to serve and enact neoliberal ideology and corporate interests, or is it a site of struggle, resistance and counter-hegemony?

But what has been notable about the debate so far is the relative lack of attention, particularly from the government, on research and research funding. The White Paper concentrated almost exclusively on funding arrangements for students – and undergraduate students at that, with barely a mention of postgraduates anywhere in the document. Yesterday, in the Times Higher, Vince Cable made an attempt to link the government’s published plans with a future strategy for research.

I say “research”, but Cable is fond of adding the qualifying “and innovation” when he uses this phrase, and occasionally it appears as if he thinks they are the same thing. What is clear is that research (and innovation) policy will in future be very much tied to economic growth. Indeed, Cable feels that policies on knowledge exchange to drive growth and innovation must be “mutually reinforcing”.

It’s reasonable to wonder where the concept of academic freedom fits into all of this, since it is frequently unclear following a research project (let alone before you’ve submitted a grant application) whether there will be any economic benefit at all. Indeed, it has often been said that this is the whole point of research, and what distinguishes it from innovation: we don’t know for sure when we start how it will end up. If – maybe when – UK research funding policy is geared towards funding only research which claims to guarantee economic growth, it is inevitable that potentially ground-breaking avenues of exploration will be overlooked. Ground-breaking and “blue skies” research is by its very nature risky and isn’t guaranteed to pay off.

The need for research to drive economic growth is part of the broader adoption of “impact” by funders as a way to measure how funded research contributes to the world outside of academia. The debate around impact has been going on even longer than the one about the Browne review and the HE White Paper, but for good or ill it’s clear that now and in future researchers looking to bid for funding need to give significant consideration to the wider economic, social and cultural benefits of their work.

There is a separate but related point in Cable’s THE article on research which helps to solve “grand challenges” facing society. Often these are technological in nature, such as the ones Cable references: renewable energy to address climate change and fossil fuel shortages; cell therapies to address major disease and ensure lifelong health. However, the recent series of consultations on Horizon 2020 (the next EC Framework Programme), as well as the UK research council’s own strategic delivery plans make clear that social sciences and humanities have a key role to play in addressing these issues. To secure research funding in future it will be increasingly necessary for researchers from these disciplines to find ways of working collaboratively in large-scale interdisciplinary projects.

It should be an interesting discussion and I’m looking forward to learning from all the others involved. Please join us if you can.