This study contributes new and updated evidence to test some of the assumptions and implications
of the UK Government’s White Paper proposals for university research funding. The policy would
change the structure of the present research base by concentrating funding in the largest and most
highly rated university units.
The case for further concentration of research funding is complex because the policy is likely to
have unintended as well as intended consequences. We have addressed five principal questions,
using a combination of data from the Research Assessment Exercise 2001, bibliometric indicators
and a survey of Universities UK members. The answers lead to three key conclusions.
First, there is no evidence that there is a current problem with the performance of the UK research
base that needs to be addressed, either overall or at the level of the units most likely to see a
funding loss. Second, if there were an emerging problem, then there is no clear evidence that the
UK’s research performance would benefit from further concentration of research funding. Third,
there is evidence that research concentration as proposed would seriously exacerbate existing
regional differences in research capacity and performance.
Evidence shows that the research base as presently structured is working well. It has sustained the
UK’s international research performance despite challenges from European neighbours and
specialist research economies in Europe and the Asia-Pacific regions. The UK produces about 9%
of the world’s papers and receives about 10% of the world’s citations. It usually ranks second to the
USA in terms of volume and ranks second to the USA amongst G8 nations in terms of research
quality in most subject areas. Its comparative international research performance appears actually
to be improving.
Bibliometric analyses confirm that the middle layers of the research base (graded 4 in research
assessment) as well as the peak performers (graded 5 and 5*) contribute to overall UK
performance. Specifically, science based grade 4 units generally perform above world average.
These units have improved over the period of analysis and data indicate their potential for further
improvement. The average UK grade 4 unit performs above world average in most disciplinary
areas within the sciences and has improved over the period. Grade 3 units rising to grade 4 also
show progressive improvement, so the funding at grade 4 provides an important bridge between
national and international levels of research.
Innovative research of disciplinary, economic and social benefit may be at risk from a diminution of
research funding for grade 4 units. A survey of institutional perceptions of the contribution made by
these units to research capacity and diversity revealed their role across a wide range of regions
and subjects. Institutions provided many examples of research from grade 4 units that was linked
to regional and national governmental policy objectives. Grade 4 units contain individual
researchers working at recognised levels of international excellence that benefit institutional
There is no evidence that research concentration would necessarily create better research. Many
relatively small research units bring in as much research funding per staff, produce relatively as
many PhDs and papers, and have as high a research impact as larger units in their subject area.
The statistical correlation between size and performance is mainly attributable to the fact that large
units rarely have poor research. There is evidence that the only critical size threshold for research
departments is at the smallest level, possibly equivalent to a single viable research group. This
may confirm earlier suggestions regarding an optimal size for research groups.
There is evidence that research concentration would have significant differences in effect at a
regional level, with some regions potentially losing important areas of research and suffering
substantial reductions in performance. We created a detailed database to model the regional
impact of a national policy that increased differentials in funding between grade 4 and grade 5
units. The results suggest that shifts in funding and activity would be unevenly spread across the
UK. They would actually increase existing regional disparities. The East Midlands and Wales
appear to suffer the greatest losses. The three regions in the south-east quarter (South East,
London, East) appear likely to gain the greatest benefits.