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Funding research diversity

2 October 2003

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.

What is the comparative international performance of the UK?

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.

What is the international standard of performance within the UK research base?

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.

What is the relationship between diversity and development in the research base?

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 missions.

What evidence is there about the benefits of research concentration?

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.

How would funding concentration affect regional research profiles?

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.

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