Why do we fund research? And who should be funded?

The history of economic development and prosperity in the developed world over the past half century is, it could be argued, essentially the history of academic research. Universities became the powerhouses they now are when governments recognised that a much faster paced economic development depended on the growth of knowledge centres with world class scholarship and the potential for translation of that scholarship into cultural, social or economic development. The prototype for this was the North Carolina Research Triangle Park based around Raleigh and Durham, but others followed and by now there are several high value academic centres around the world which have been a magnet for growth and regeneration.

So we know, therefore, that high value research produces development and growth, or at least can do if managed well. So what do we conclude from this? The most common, but in some ways also the most politically lazy, conclusion has been to go for what is known as ‘research concentration’, under which an ever smaller number of institutions and of researchers are allocated public funding. The thinking behind this is that the capacity of institutions to develop genuinely world class research is limited and requires critical mass, and that this is best achieved in old, usually somewhat traditional, wealthier universities. This approach is now also being adopted by foundations funding research, with the added complication that research funding is now targeting individuals rather than institutions – with serious implications as seen in this report in the Guardian.

The impact of all this has, I believe, not really been understood by key decision-makers. The new trends are indeed concentrating research on individuals and, inevitably, a small number of institutions. This will tend to shift investment to older city locations hosting older universities. Or rather, it will tend to make unlikely the emergence of more research triangle parks like that in North Carolina, which in economic terms is still the most successful model. It is also unhitching research funding from the usability of research outcomes, and in particular from any link with local development needs. So for example, research concentration in Scotland if done on this basis will tend to undermine any economic development policy that the Scottish government may have in mind, and in particular any not focused on the Central Belt between Glasgow and Edinburgh.

To say that the purpose of research funding is to produce world class research is well and good. But if that’s the logic, then probably nobody should be funding research anywhere other than California, New England, Bangalore and Southern China; certainly there would be little logic in funding research in the UK and Ireland. But that would be daft. It is time to ask far more searching questions about the purpose of research, and to be much smarter in funding it.

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7 Comments on “Why do we fund research? And who should be funded?”

  1. paulmartin42 Says:

    Necessity is the mother of invention

  2. Vince Says:

    I had a look at this a few years ago, the node/triangle idea, that is. Yes, all you say is valid but there are a few inputs that I believe are crucial.
    In the past when such were developed there was a overriding imperative that could snaffle sectoral interests. Be that the second world war, the cold war, Vietnam but mostly the Moon Shot. All this petered out in the 70’s when the vast injection of funds halted. However, by then education was the biggest industry in a huge slice of a States, sometimes crossing into a second or even a third making it virtually impossible to cease all funding.
    But, and here’s the rub. In the States -and it’s the States we’re on about here btw- at that time there was a number of bankruptcies of universities which injected a degree of reality, holding people in positions but at a lower cost. However since they were in such a large area such a drop lowered everything in the triangle so they were no worse off relatively but were by comparison to other places.
    Basically, we are in a form of status quo anti bellum. Where old habits are resetting themselves and newer notions will be starved if not snuffed. Where sectoral and class interests are to the fore and where very little can be done to change this until an overriding idea arrives.

  3. James Fryar Says:

    Based on my experiences, I think there are three main ‘concerns’ that I have regarding research funding.

    The first is our patent system. It used to be the case that a patent could not be filed if it was ‘obvious to one skilled in the art’. If you search patents today, what you find is huge numbers that really are quite obvious – people have taken existing ideas, tweaked them slightly, and filed a patent. The patent offices are no longer scrutinising or denying applications, and it is no longer the officers who decide what is and isn’t patented but the legal system. I’m no expert but if you want to produce a slim, touch-screen based device, I’m pretty sure it’s going to look like other slim, touch-screen based devices. And so we have companies suing one another over ‘infringements’. The problem is that universities and governments can no longer afford this kind of protracted, costly battle. I think our patent and IP system is a shambles that only multinationals can afford.

    Secondly, I think research funding has become a PR exercise for government. In Ireland we pump huge amounts of cash into biotech research but to be honest, the outcome of this cash will be papers for academics. It takes 14 years to develop a new drug and bring it to market, at a cost of about 1 billion US dollars. So while we may find ‘new strategies for targeting cancer’, these strategies will be owned by the biotech firms, will be developed into drugs and sold back to the taxpayer. This is, of course, not a bad thing but the ‘impact on our economy’ and the ‘financial benefit to the taxpayer’ of the research funding is being overstated. How does it benefit Ireland financially if US companies are making drugs Irish scientists helped to develop?

    Finally, I think we need to re-think exactly what research funding does. Suppose we have a recently qualified teacher who comes up with a really brilliant idea about a way to deliver on-line courses. The idea doesn’t matter unless she can implement it, and the only way she can do that is to get someone to code the software and develop the webpages. In other words, she needs a ‘research grant’ to research how to implement her idea, to get an expert onboard. This sort of problem is one level below where our ‘innovation’ funding kicks in. I think, with relatively small amounts of cash, we should be funding graduates with ideas who need to ‘research and develop’ that idea because they do not have the necessary skills to implement it. If I came up with the idea of Facebook, but wasn’t a computer science student, how would I, in Ireland or the UK, develop that?

  4. Ernie Ball Says:

    “knowledge centres with world class scholarship and the potential for translation of that scholarship into cultural, social or economic development. The prototype for this was the North Carolina Research Triangle Park”

    What are the cultural and social developments that came out of Research Triangle?

  5. Westley Says:

    Completely ignored in this debate is that oftentimes the most valuable outcome of research is the competent researcher and the skills and attributes that individual brings to a wide range of roles. The recent Wright Report on the Irish Department of Finance’s role in reducing Ireland to a vassal state of the EU-ECB-IMF troika was the complete absence of any civil servant with a PhD in economics or economic history and the implications of that for sound evidence based policy. Alas, the recent abolition of the humanities and social sciences research council and the ‘research prioritisation exercise’ render increasingly unlikely that such a creature will exist in Ireland, regardless of the unlikely willingness of the civil service to properly consider such individuals for public service roles.

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