Don’t know who wrote this letter to the Guardian a few days ago, but it does make a very good point. It’s along the lines of what I was discussing in an earlier post, although put somewhat more eloquently than I could manage.
Although I certainly wouldn’t be necessarily advocating turning back the clock, trying to simplify the system does seems quite reasonable. A few years ago, one of the things I really liked about working in the UK, when compared with the US, was that money wasn’t a major issue. I don’t mean that money wasn’t important, but simply that Academic researchers weren’t under a great deal of pressure to bring in money. They would still need money to carry out their research, but because the research money primarily covered direct costs, as long as someone was productive the amount of money they brought in didn’t really matter.
With the introduction of Full Economic Costing (fEC) this is all changing. Even a basic grant brings in a lot of money to the university, some of which covers the Principal Investigator’s salary. I think this is a very negative step and could well change the motivation of some researchers and become very divisive if a two-tier system develops – those with money and those without. One of the reasons why I think the UK has punched above it’s weight internationally in the recent past is precisely because academics were relatively free to pursue what they enjoyed, rather than being pressurised to do what is most likely to bring in money.
I certainly think that the system would be much simpler if universities were given enough money to operate, probably determined by the number of students and the quality of research (as determined by the Research Assessment Excercise). Researchers would then apply for funding to cover the direct costs of their research (plus some basic overheads). Together with being simpler, this would be a much more positive environment in which the UK could continue to punch well above its weight.