Research and the Knowledge Age
The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) is pleased to respond to the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council’s (SHEFC’s) research funding review. The RSE is Scotland’s premier Learned Society, comprising Fellows elected on the basis of their distinction, from the full range of academic disciplines, and from industry, commerce and the professions. This response has been compiled with the assistance of a number of Fellows with substantial experience of research and higher education from across Scotland and the UK.
The RSE welcomes SHEFC’s research funding review and believes it provides a good assessment of the problems regarding research funding in all its aspects. Scottish institutions need to be supported in a way which makes it possible to contribute to knowledge and innovation at a global level, and the consultation document rightly recognises that while some long term stability in funding policy is desirable to allow forward planning by individual institutions, there is also a needed for flexibility in a rapidly changing world.
The key priorities for the higher education (HE) research base in Scotland are the support of excellence in research and the production of a flow of researchers trained at a world-class level. Excellence in research is required because in a highly competitive world anything less is of limited value. Industry and commerce also require capable and educated people for success in a competitive and increasingly sophisticated world and higher education institutions (HEIs) serve society by producing graduates at first and higher degree levels who can generate such success.
The questions identified within the consultation document are answered below:
a. Are the objectives set out in paragraph 23 appropriate for the Council’s future funding of research?
b. Are there any other significant objectives which the Council’s research funding mechanisms should be seeking to promote?
The objectives proposed are broadly appropriate and cover the important research objectives that should be promoted in Scotland.
Question 2: What relative weight should be given to each of these objectives in the development of possible new methods of funding research?
Objective 1 (the development of a flexible, efficient and high quality research base and an increase in the volume of world-class research undertaken in Scotland) is the base upon which all the others rest and the remainder are generally cited in their correct order of importance, apart from Objective 6 (the development of a highly trained research workforce) which should be ranked second or third.
With regard to Objective 2 (the application, commercialisation and dissemination of the outcomes of research, for the benefit of the nation) this objective is clearly important and relevant to a devolved Scotland. SHEFC should also look to collaborations with other agencies (Scottish Enterprise, Local Enterprise Companies, and Government departments) to assist in supporting the commercialisation process.
Question 3: What are your views on the strengths and weaknesses of the Council’s currentpolicies and methods of funding and assessing research?
The RSE believes that the dual support system is fundamentally sound in principle and its continuation should be facilitated. In particular, the Funding Council’s baseline support enables fundamental, curiosity-driven research to be done which can and will lead to as yet unknown returns, and is currently the only source for much scholarship in the arts and humanities.
The points made in paragraph 34 are all pertinent, however, despite the time consuming and somewhat expensive nature of the research assessment exercise (RAE) the Society believes that the RAE has had a positive effect on standards. It is also possible to turn a number of the arguments on their heads; for example, the 'transfer market' referred to can act to strengthen research groups through the recruitment of workers with complementary skills and free-up a somewhat frozen situation where moves are often all too rare. Similarly, the pressure to publish can stimulate output from those who might otherwise be ill-focussed in their research activity.
However, the competition stimulated by the RAE, since it influenced the main part of the funding stream, has meant that there has not been sufficient stimulus to inter-institution collaboration. In a small country like Scotland this has been counter productive. There is also a need for better recognition of multi- and interdisciplinary research and commercial research outputs, and the RSE waits to see how far the modifications to the 2001 RAE go towards addressing these issues.
a. How should excellence in research be defined?
‘Excellence’ in research is defined by the level of contribution an individual researcher is making to his/her research field. ‘Excellence’ implies originality, accuracy, depth, imagination, enterprise, skilled
and meticulous work, judgement and a flair for attacking rewarding problems.
Output as published papers is too narrow a base to be the sole arbiter of excellence as it risks being seen as conservative and backward looking. The contribution of staff to high-level committees, workshops and meetings is a major output which can affect the direction, level and quality of research both nationally and internationally; likewise the training and education of students at undergraduate and graduate level is important, specifically where they use the results of their training in academia, industry or commerce.
b. What are the characteristics of international excellence in research?
The characteristics of international excellence in research are the amounts by which a researcher has advanced his/her research field. International excellence is best characterised by its acceptance by the relevant academic community. This implies publication of the research in internationally recognised journals or invitations to speak at internationally attended conferences (some of which may nevertheless be nationally based in the UK) or international recognition for individual researchers by relevant awards, medals and invitations to lecture. In fields needing major facilities, it will lead to acceptance of proposals for use of such facilities and invitations to join collaborations.
c. How should excellence be measured?
A balance of quantitative performance indicators covering a wide range of measurables of input and output (for example, publications, patents, winning of grants, researchers trained) with peer judgement is likely to be accepted by the community. It should be noted that the same combination of performance indicators will not be appropriate for every discipline.
a. What mechanisms might the Council use to define, identify and measure relevance?
Bodies providing project-based grant funding such as Research Councils, charities, Government or industry, will all have funding priorities which could be used to identify ‘relevance’. Other indicators of relevance include externally generated research income or a researcher’s demand as a consultant. A Scottish science strategy could also be used to identify priorities, and hence pinpoint relevant areas of work.
b. How should the Council seek to achieve an appropriate balance in funding between research that is excellent and research that is both excellent and relevant?
As noted in the consultation paper, future relevance is hard to predict with applicationsarising from fundamental science often only apparent in the medium and long term. Support is therefore necessary for research that is excellent but not obviously relevant in the short term. The Research Councils have criteria for supporting excellent blue-sky research and they may also be able to provide some insight in identifying an appropriate balance between the two. In the context of the Dual Support System, however, it is the Funding Councils which are the primary source of truly original ‘Blue Sky’ research funding.
Question 6: In what ways could the Council’s mainstream methods of funding research be developed to stimulate, promote and create the appropriate conditions for increased knowledge transfer and the application and commercialisation of high quality research?
Priority for basic research need not be inconsistent with a commercialisation approach. On the other hand there is a case for trying to promote research activity which may more directly benefit indigenous industry. The problem lies, however, with the relative dearth in Scotland of businesses which are ready and able to take advantage of the research capabilities in our institutions. Without a greater willingness on the part of the business community to be prepared to invest more actively in innovation the payback from greater SHEFC investment will be limited. SHEFC may need to engage the Business community more directly to try to find ways of addressing this issue.
Ways in which funding could be used to promote this area include: funding to facilitate collaborations with industry; staff development in commercialisation; undergraduate and graduates topics on the routes to commercialisation and patent applications. An assessment of success in transferring research results into the wider community could also be included as a factor in a Research Assessment Exercise.
a. In what areas could the Council use its mainstream funding mechanisms to promote and facilitate increased, and more effective, collaboration in research?
The RSE believes that the Council’s Research Development Grant (RDG) scheme is an appropriate mechanism to promote collaboration. Grants through this scheme for major facilities could have an explicit requirement that the facility should be, within reason, available to researchers from outwith the laboratory housing the facility. Collaboration, however, requires encouragement and facilitation and only works well when the academic and managerial basis is well founded. The host institutions, therefore, should be properly funded to run the facilities, including funding for hosting visitors from other institutions.
Encouragement could also be given to funding schemes for necessary travel, often a not insignificant cost and one which sometimes falls on the individual.
a. How should it seek to do this?
The desire for collaboration among Scottish higher education institutions and for research with a direct application to Scottish problems is understandable and clearly important, but Scottish HE should avoid becoming too inward looking or parochial in its interests. Collaborations with people or groups elsewhere in the UK or abroad are equally important. Effective networking organisations will be key in sharing ideas and promoting collaborations, and the RSE would be able to assist in this capacity.
In addition, collaboration often does not work well when it is imposed, but usually flourishes when it is encouraged.
Question 8: In what ways could the Council’s policies and methods of funding research most effectively support and promote interdisciplinary research?
It is not clear that there are any mechanisms which the Council can or should use to support and promote interdisciplinary research, although the RDG could be an effective means. Overall it is a matter for individual researchers and for direct funders of research. Provided that rigid boundaries are not drawn in assessments, interdisciplinary research will be able to make its own case through its quality.
However, successful interdisciplinary research often arises through informal contacts and discussion, and fostering better communication could produce real achievements.
a. What mechanisms should the Council use to support, and nurture, emerging areas of research?
b. What mechanisms should the Council use to stimulate and support research in areas of priority for Scotland?
Those best placed to identify new important research areas are researchers themselves and SHEFC should beware of appearing, through its funding mechanisms in research, to be trying to pick winners. Only where there are unique and Scotland-specific activities should SHEFC act as a longstop.
However, both emerging areas of research and areas of Scottish priority could be addressed by intelligent use of an RDG type scheme. This mechanism allows a ‘bottom-up’ identification of emerging areas, and for areas of priority to be used to focus applications. It also allows for the work to be undertaken without prior reference to a RAE outcome.
Question 10: How should the Council seek to establish an appropriate balance between the support for emerging disciplines and support for established areas of research?
The balance between support for emerging disciplines and established ones should be by competition and peer review, based on feedback from the universities and colleges.
Question 11: What role could the Council’s policies and methods for funding research play in supporting the recruitment and development of the next generation of academic researchers?
Student debt is undoubtedly affecting post-graduate recruitment, but it is difficult to see what the Funding Council can do to alter this. Academic researchers will, however, be attracted by state-of-the-art facilities in state-of-the-art surroundings: allowing world class research to be pursued. The Council might also support the funding and implementation of the recommendations of the Bett report into salaries within the academic profession.
Question 12: Should the Council’s mainstream methods of funding research play a more direct role in helping institutions to recruit and retain international research leaders?
If research resources are available for star researchers and there is freedom to pursue challenging and intellectually rewarding projects in state-of-the-art facilities in state-of-the-art surroundings then the objectives will be achieved naturally.
Question 13: In what ways might the Council’s policies and methods of funding research more effectively promote high quality research training and development of researchers?
Research training and development are primarily matters for individual university departments to deal with, and will vary significantly from discipline to discipline. There may, however, be some scope for developing and disseminating general guidelines of good practice and for organising some multi-institutional events at which ideas might be shared.
Question 14: In what ways might the Council’s main methods of funding research help institutions to provide more security of employment for more contract research staff?
Some universities already use part of their main grant money to provide bridging-funds for researchers between contracts. The Council should provide encouragement for this to be further developed. Overall, universities should identify high-flying contract research staff that they wish to retain and eventually recruit as academic staff.
Question 15: What are your views on the relative importance of the criteria for an effective funding system? If you could share out 80 points between the criteria to reflect the relative importance of each, how would you score them?
All the criteria are important, although criteria for different funding methods may differ in emphasis, or change with time. The relative importance of the different criteria are scored below, but we are a little hesitant to engage in such a subjective exercise:
Question 16: How should SHEFC seek to determine the appropriate balance between providing core funding for research, which institutions can use flexibly, and developmentaland initiative funding, which the Council can use strategically in direct pursuit of its more specific objectives?
What gives sustained strength to the UK research output is the dual support system. SHEFC should take into account the views of the HEIs and the Research Councils on the appropriate balance between core funding and developmental and initiative finding to support this process. The RSE believes that SHEFC’s priority should be to preserve and enhance the quality of Scottish research base.
Question 17: How might the Council best determine the appropriate rate of selectivity in its core funding for research to achieve its objectives?
As the RSE noted in its report Devolution and Science, basic research must be characterised by focus in areas of opportunity and need, and diversity which gives flexibility to address new opportunities. However, although investment choices must be made, they must not lead to over-specialisation which reduces the capacity to exploit unexpected innovations or answer future policy needs. Given the minimum efficient scale of scientific community and of resourcing below which it is difficult to sustain an internationally competitive basic research capability, the key to retaining the flexibility to exploit such opportunities lies in maintaining a broad capability in basic research, on a UK basis. Overall, the research base must aspire to excellence by international standards. There should be no trade off between relevance and excellence as only excellent research is relevant.
Given that research funding is limited, SHEFC must resist any tendency to rob efficient and research-active ‘Peters’ to pay faltering and less research-competent ‘Pauls’.
Question 18: What criteria should the Council use in the future to allocate selectively its core funds for research?
Research quality is the key criteria, recognised by peer review and judged against international standards.
a. What are the relative benefits and disadvantages of the various broad options that might be open to the Council to fund research in the future in relation to the present methods?
Option 1: RAE-Based grant and the Strategic Research Development Grant
This option has the advantage that the RAE-based grant is the best objective mechanism so far devised for ensuring that research support is provided to those institutions that have demonstrated their capacity to undertake leading edge research. The RAE measure could also be sensibly expanded to include a measure of success in the transfer of research results into the community. In addition, the RDG scheme allows SHEFC to exert some degree of policy steer.
The disadvantages are that the 4/5-year assessment cycle of the RAE may mean that some excellent long-term work research work may be missed, particularly if it does not fit into the interval between RAEs. This option will also tend to reinforce existing strengths rather than encouraging unpredictable innovative new research, which could be achieved by putting the majority of ‘speculative' funds into the hands of the local institutions (for example as in Options 4 and 5).
Option 2: Multiple funding streams
This option would have the benefit of focusing institutions to provide training, and would relate to clearly identified inputs. The disadvantages would be that it could be unduly prescriptive and take inordinate amounts of time and form filling.
Option 3: Funding through thematic units
This option could have the benefits of stimulating research in new areas, however, it could be unduly prescriptive and the suitability of themes for funding would have to be closely monitored.
Option 4: Funding research leaders
This option could fund important research areas and ensure flexibility by putting the majority of ‘speculative' funds into the hands of the best local institutions and encourage the 'star' researchers.
Such an option could, however, cause research imbalances across institutions and within them. In addition, sections of the RAE already deal with these points at unit of assessment level where there are experts on a UK level with relevant knowledge undertaking the assessment. It would be difficult, if not impossible, for SHEFC to deploy the resource to undertake such a scheme itself. There would also be implications for research leaders moving between institutions, and for plans which are not delivered in practice.
Option 5: Funding institutional strategies
This option would ensure flexibility by again putting the majority of ‘speculative' funds into the hands of the best local institutions. There would, however, be similar difficulties to Option 4 in terms of the expertise and resources required to sufficiently undertake an assessment of the plans with respect to objectivity, practicality and transparency.
b. How well does each option meet the criteria for the development of an effective funding system set out in paragraph 95 of the consultation document?
The RSE believes Options 1 and 2 could be set up to meet all the criteria set out in paragraph 95, however Option 3 could pose difficulties in addressing objectivity and practicality, while Options 4 and 5 would have difficulties in addressing the criteria with respect to objectivity, practicality and transparency.
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: Commercialisation Enquiry: Final Report (1996); National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education (October 1996); The Innovation - Exploitation Barrier (January 1997); Comments on the Recommendations of the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education (September 1997); Engineering and Physical Sciences Based Innovation (March 1998); Review of Postgraduate Education (February 1999); Devolution and Science (April 1999); A Framework for Economic Development (March 2000). Copies of this response and of the above publications are available from the Research Officer, Dr Marc Rands