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.