Review of Research Policy and Funding

Review of Research Policy and Funding

Review of Research Policy and Funding

The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) is pleased to respond to the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council's (SHEFC) Review of Research Policy and Funding. The RSE is Scotland’s premier Learned Society, comprising Fellows elected on thebasis of their distinction, from the full range of academic disciplines, and from industry, commerce and the professions. This response has been compiled by the General Secretary with the assistance of a number of Fellows with substantial experience in this area.

  • The Society welcomes the general thrust of the document. In particular:
  • The increase in funding by formula with less emphasis on the bidding process.
  • The concentration on excellence but with provision for allowing new centres of excellence to develop
  • The emphasis on collaboration both in terms of SHEFC working with other funders and within institutions
  • The concern for "people issues"

The specific questions identified in the consultation document are addressed below:

Question 1: Should all Category A staff continue to be taken into account in calculating the distribution of funds to subject areas?

Yes. The proposed way forward is the simplest and will allow both the full depth and breadth of research to be rewarded.

Question 2: Is there any evidence to suggest that the details or methodology of the Cost factor need to be changed by the Council?

The cost factor differentials are somewhat crude. However, there is no doubt that some subjects are more expensive than others. The transparency review may shed greater light on the validity of these factors and, in the absence of other information, the differentials should remain. The ratio of high to low cost subjects, however, of 1.6/1.0 does not seem fully to reflect the higher costs associated with laboratory-based subjects. It is also noted that pre-clinical studies is one of the intermediate cost groups which does not seem to be consistent with the fact that most of its components are laboratory based.

Question 3: Should the Council retain the use of the Quality factor in allocating resources to subject areas through its Main Quality Research Grant?

Some Quality Factor has to be retained, but as calculated it is strongly influenced by the average weighted quality within a subject. The latter can vary arbitrarily depending on the subject committee of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). For example, in the last exercise the average score in Physics was higher than in Chemistry, and yet there is no evidence in performance indicators (such as, grant income, publication output, level of innovation, patents and strength of related industrial sector) that such a difference is real. The Council needs therefore to play its part in ensuring that average weighted quality within subjects, as deduced from the RAE, is well founded. Given the relatively small arena that constitutes some research activities in Scotland, there could also be suspicions about the validity of subject-area comparisons based solely on a Scottish average. If such a measure is deemed necessary, UK-wide comparisons would be more representative.

Question 4: Assuming that priorities for investment in the research base in Scotland can be identified, views are invited on the idea of including a Priority factor in the method of allocation of the Main Quality Research Grant?

While the Scottish Science Strategy, Cluster Strategy and the Foresight programme may identify relevant priorities for the Scottish research base, such priorities are better handled through better targeted mechanisms such as the Research Development Grant. Scotland also needs to remain flexible in terms of the research base it nurtures, given the innate difficulty of attempting to anticipate the perceived future benefits to society deriving from research on a subject-area scale. To achieve a significant effect through a Priority factor (without additional funding), would probably require close to zero funding for large numbers of subjects areas.

Question 5: Should the Council enhance the level of recurrent funding for 5* rated departments (Units of Assessment) following the 2001 RAE?

In principle, a differential in funding between 5 and 5* would be appropriate, in order to stimulate and maintain world class research, and to be consistent with the distinction between 5 and 5* made by the RAE. This need not, however, necessarily be as great as the standard increment between the other ratings, and should not significantly impact upon funds to internationally competitive 5 and 4 graded departments.

Question 6a: Do the current Minor Volume Indicators continue to be appropriate measures of research volume?

Yes, the RSE believes the minor volume indicators continue to be appropriate measures of research volume.

Question 6b: If so, should the relative weightings assigned to each indicator remain as at present?

The Society believes that the minor volume indicators could be increased. In particular, increasing the weight of Research Assistants to reflect their increasing role in the production of research results, and increasing the weighting of the research income factor to take into account inflationary pressures.

Question 6c: Is there an argument for weighting differentially the different sources of external research income in the funding method?

There may be an argument for differential weighting, although there would have to be discussions with the research community before such differential weightings were introduced. Moreover, this would introduce yet more complexity into an already complicated system.

Question 7: Should the Council earmark specifically for investment in capital a proportion of its funding from the Main Quality Research Grant?

This possibility would need to be considered carefully. However, the improvement in, and continuation of, a good research infrastructure is essential.

Question 8: What are your views on the Council's proposals for a Strategic Research Development Grant?

The Society supports an element of research fund allocation via a Strategic Research Development Grant. The Research Development Grant scheme has proved a major benefit to the sector and has provided a reasonable mechanism for the SHEFC to take account of Government policy and Foresight in the context of research funding. There is a strong case for creating links with European funding and the suggestion that Scottish centres of excellence be linked with European centres is an appropriate way to proceed. The introduction of International members on to the panel is also supported although this may be both difficult and expensive to achieve. Improved access to the facilities and equipment funded by the scheme is similarly welcomed and access should be available to all researchers in Scotland who can make good use of them.

Question 9: What are your views on the Council's proposal for a formula-led Research Development Foundation Grant?

The potential choking off of funds from grade 3a and 3b departments will be a gamble in terms of reducing flexibility and the prospect of evolutionary change in the future. This will be particularly the case in non-Science areas, where small groups of individuals can produce excellent research even if in a minority in a department.

If there is to be no funding for departments gaining 3b and below then the flexibility offered by the RDFG will be an essential component for ensuring that research capabilities are encouraged in all institutions. However, it should be expanded to about 10% of the Main Quality Research Grant. It is also suggested that the distribution formula takes account of consultancy-related income as well as research income, as that reflects the demand for the knowledge-based services which are being provided.

Question 10: In what areas might the Council use its research development funding to achieve greater synergies with the programmes of research funded by the Scottish Executive?

The forthcoming Science Strategy proposals will hopefully bring some co-ordination between the different sectors and the proposal to set aside funding to facilitate this is an excellent one.

The principal areas for greater synergies with the programmes of research funding are agriculture and health - both of which are likely to be priority areas for both government and the science strategy. Other potential areas could also be rural development and environmental management.

Question 11: What are your views on the Council's proposal to establish a permanent, recurrent funding stream to support the knowledge transfer activities of HEIs?

The Society welcomes the establishment of a recurrent funding stream to support the knowledge transfer activities of HEIs. In this context, the growing relationship between SHEFC and Scottish Enterprise will be essential for this purpose.

Question 12: Do you agree that the Council should maintain a funding stream to provide institutions in Scotland with access to UK funding activities, where it is recognised that participation in such activities is important to maintaining the national and international competitiveness of the Scottish research base?

Yes, the Council should continue to maintain a funding stream to provide Institutions in Scotland with access to UK funding organisations in order to ensure that the Scottish science base remains an integral part of the UK system of basic research. Such allocation should also ensure Scottish representation on the committees or boards which disburse the funding. Care needs to be taken so that the decisions about participation in relevant UK schemes are made in a timely manner to enable Scottish participation at the start of initiatives so that Scottish research opportunities are not left out of the early stages of scheme development.

Question 13: Would there be benefits in using the Strategic Research Development Grant to fund networks of collaborative research activity, where such networks are based around key facilities that are concentrated at certain nodal points?

The Society believes that there would be benefits in using the Strategic Research Development Grant to promote collaboration. Grants through this scheme for major facilities could include networks of collaborative research activity. However, collaboration requires encouragement and facilitation and only works well when theacademic and managerial basis is well founded. The host institutions, therefore, should be properly funded to run the facilities, including funding provision for hosting visitors from other institutions.

Question 14: What are your views on the Council's proposals for the funding and training of postgraduate research students?

The RSE supports the Council's proposals for the funding of postgraduate research students and the link to the RAE rating. In view of the need to provide research students with taught components, a concentration of students is both academically desirable and financially necessary. With regard to national criteria for the training of postgraduate research students, developments in this area are also being undertaken by the Research Councils, and it will be important that SHEFC liases with them to ensure that the different systems developed are compatible.

Question 15: What are your views on the overall funding model that the Council proposes to introduce from 2002-03?

In general, the model proposed is a useful development representing a positive response to the main concerns expressed in the first stage consultation. Although at the margins there may be significance for one HEI or another, the broad thrust of selective support to maintain and, where possible, strengthen the international quality of Scotland's science base is a suitable approach.

Additional Information

In responding to this inquiry the Society would like to draw attention to the following Royal Society of Edinburgh responses which are of relevance to this subject: Review of Postgraduate Education (February 1999); Devolution and Science (April 1999); A Framework for Economic Development (March 2000); Research and the Knowledge Age (April 2000); A Science Strategy for Scotland (July 2000); The Are We Realising Our Potential Inquiry (July 2000; January 2001) and Postgraduate Support (August 2000).

 

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