If you’ve read any of my earlier posts, you’ll know that I’m not a fan of the Full Economic Costing (fEC) funding model that was recently introduced in the UK. In case you don’t know what this is, it is the way in which research is funded in universities. When a researcher wants money to carry out research, they will apply for funding from one of the research councils and the researcher’s university will include all the costs associated with the research. This will include any salaries (or parts of salaries), admin costs, estates and buildings, travel, computing and a sum referred to as “indirect costs”.
The fundamental problem I have with this is that I think it is not straightforward to separate the costs of teaching and research and that they are both an equally important part of an academic’s career. The risk, in my view, is that we will start to value someone’s ability to bring in money more than the quality of their research and teaching. There will be pressure for research to follow the money and also the possibility that teaching will suffer since the direct link between teaching and money is less obvious. This isn’t to suggest that the amount of money that the universities are getting is not appropriate, but simply that we should have a more holistic view of universities and provide the funding in a more general way (i.e., how much does a research university of a certain size need to cover the basic costs of operating).
However, I do think that some universities may have been interpreting the term Full very specifically and have been including anything that they possibly could onto a research grant. Typically a research grant that proposes to employ a junior researcher, buy some computing, pay some travel costs, and pay some of the Principal Investigator’s (PI) salary will be costed at £150000 per year (with the junior researcher’s salary being about £29000 per year). The university gets almost £50000 per year to cover indirect costs and estates and buildings plus another £15000 or so to cover part of the PI’s salary. I don’t want to suggest that a university wastes this money, but I suspect that it is – in general – more than the actual full cost of a typical research project (or at least more than the full cost that could be easily associate with a typical research grant).
I was listening to Radio 4 yesterday evening and they had – amongst others – David Willetts discussing the science budget. He made the point that even though the science budget will effectively see a 10% cut over the next few years due to inflation, he thought that there could be efficiency savings of order 10%. He highlighted, in particular, the possibility (suggested supposedly in a review by Bill Wakeham – a physicist from Southampton) that in fact universities have been including too many things in fEC research grants. Essentially what he seems to be proposing is that research grants are reduced by about 10% and that all of this will come out of the indirect costs. A consequence of this is presumably that the same amount of money will be going into universities, but more of it will be used to cover the direct cost of research and less to cover the indirect. Universities will therefore effectively see a cut in the money that they use to cover infrastructure and other non-direct research expenses.
My personal view is that universities made a mistake in agreeing to the fEC model. My understanding is that there had been a period when universities were supporting research with money that they felt should have been used to support teaching. I believe the initial idea was that some money would be taken away from universities (the portion that supported research) and returned (with some extra added) through research grants from the funding councils. Universities expected to gain money and hence properly cover all the costs of research and teaching. It is quite possible that the reverse will happen. The research councils could agree that the fEC costs are too high and that there should be some kind of cap on the level of non-direct costs on research grants. Universities could therefore end up back where they started with not enough money to cover the indirect costs of their research activities properly. Personally I wish they’d thought more deeply about the consequences of the fEC model and not simply leapt at the possibility of getting more money.