Research funding in the UK

I’ve spent a number of years working in the UK, but have also worked for a number of years in the US. One thing I liked about doing research in the UK was that there was less explicit emphasis on money. What was somewhat disappointing was just a year or so after returning to work in the UK, the research funding model was changed. Now when a grant is funded it not only pays part of the academic’s salary (which it didn’t use to in the past), it also pays a large amount of indirect costs to the university. The idea is that grant funding now covers the full economic costs of the research, known – not surprisingly – as Full Economic Costing (FEC).

The idea behind this is – I believe – that in the past the level of funding was such that to cover the additional costs of doing research, universities had to spend money that should really have been spent on other things, or they did not actually spend enough money maintaining buildings and research space. The new costs that can be included in research grants are meant to cover – in general – the indirect costs of doing research. In theory this is perfectly reasonable. An issue I have with this is that it changes the fundamental philosophy of how research is done in the UK. For example, individual researchers are now expected to bring in a certain fraction of their salary. This may sound alright to most, but the inherent randomness of grant successes means that good researchers could be judged as having failed not because they didn’t publish good papers (or did good research), but because they weren’t sufficiently successful at bringing in money.

What is more, it doesn’t seem to me that the costs that universities are including on research grants are particularly realistic or reasonable. Most universities – from what I understand – are now claiming that it costs about £150000 per year to support junior researchers who will earn less than £30000 per year. My university also doesn’t seem to be able to spend all the indirect costs that it receives – or at least can’t spent it all on what I would regard as indirect costs. It returns some to the departments to support existing research. As far as I understand it, this is legitimate since it can essentially only be used to support ongoing research and cannot be used to generate new research. The existence of indirect costs on research grants does, however, mean that fewer grants are funded. Researchers who are funded can then also get extra money through the return of some of the indirect costs back to departments. Some of those who are unfunded may still benefit, but it is probably harder for them than for those who are directly funded.

Now I should be slightly careful here, because universities having money that they can return to departments to help with unforeseen or unpredicted research costs is probably a good thing. What I think I object to is that this new Full Economic Costing model of funding was meant to be a cleaner more transparent way to fund research. In truth, however, it seems like it only reflects the true cost in some kind of average sense – the amount requested on each grant proposal is not what it will actually cost to carry out this research project, but the average cost of carrying out research projects. As illustrated above, the amounts that universities are requesting also seems considerably higher than what I would regard as reasonable. This model is also likely to make money a much more important factor in determining how successful a researcher is, rather than judging them by the quality of their research (I’m implying here that although there must be a correlation between success at getting research grants and success at doing research, it may be not be particularly good).

Why do I worry about money becoming overly important in academic research here in the UK. It’s because I think the reason the UK has generally punched above its weight in the past is precisely because there wasn’t as much focus on money here as there has been, for example, in the US. This FEC model is probably also only correct on average in the sense that the amount universities are likely to request per grant is probably determined more by the total they would like to get, rather than by the actual cost of that particular research project. If making individual researchers responsible for getting the full cost of their research will damage what was a very positive research environment in the UK, and if this full cost is not a true cost anyway, why do it this way. Why not make individual researchers responsible for getting the direct costs of their research and let institutions bid for lump sums that will cover the additional, indirect costs of carrying out the research. The end will in general be the same, and it is less likely that money will become the prime factor in determining if a researcher is successful or not.

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