Allocating research funds

During this past week universities in the United Kingdom discovered what their basic research funding was going to be, in the light of the recent Research Assessment Exercise. Until now, the assumption in the UK has been that, at least over a period of time, research money would increasingly be concentrated on a small number of research intensive institutions, each of which would then be able to compete in the global rankings. In the event the latest allocations by the funding council show a rather different trend – some of the biggest research universities lost out (including the University of Cambridge, Imperial College, and University College London), while some universities of high quality but not previously amongst the top winners received very significant funding increases.

There are major policy issues (as well as issues of judgement as to excellence) tied up in this question, and they are also of relevance to us in Ireland. A key objective of research funding must be to support and maintain world class research groupings that will be able to compete with the best globally and act as a magnet for economic, social and cultural development, including inward investment. Whether this can best be achieved by promoting a small number of extremely generously funded institutions or by funding and supporting national networks of research excellence is one of those questions that have become topical. Right now in Ireland, the basic assumption underpinning support by some for a UCD-TCD research alliance is that a single centre of excellence can be more easily supported, funded and made globally competitive. On the other hand, over recent years there has been a significant investment in creating world class research groupings across all the institutions in Ireland, working with each other, and this funding has followed excellence as determined by external reviewers; my own university has been one of the main winners in that process.

There is of course no single easy formula that determines such matters – the correct answer depends on a number of matters, including the location of key researchers, the distribution of industrial investment, social and economic development needs and so forth. There is no real evidence right now that excellence has been more readily found in one or two universities rather than all seven in Ireland – but there is a considerable need to ensure that resources are well directed and focused on building up the niche areas of excellence in which Ireland as a whole can lead globally. And there is, as ever, a need for an explicit and well understood strategy that will govern our national development in this regard.

Explore posts in the same categories: economy, higher education, university

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