Posted tagged ‘research funding’

Determining the national research agenda

March 27, 2011

A common feature of government-commissioned higher education reviews in a number of countries in recent years has been the suggestion that publicly funded research (and indeed teaching programmes) should take account of national strategic priorities. Put another way, what this means is that if university researchers are spending public money on research projects, these should at least in some measure address issues and problems that the government has identified as being important.

So for example, this imperative was set out in New Horizons, the final report of the Scottish Joint Future Thinking Taskforce on Universities, as follows:

‘Universities already contribute and will expect to continue to contribute significantly to making Scotland a more prosperous place. In future, though, the Scottish Government will expect the university sector to demonstrate more explicitly how the funding it receives from the Government contributes to delivering against the National Outcomes, thereby ensuring there is alignment of publicly funded activity against the Scottish Government’s Purpose – its vision for the whole of Scotland – as set out in the National Performance Framework.’

Similarly in Ireland the Hunt report (National Strategy for Higher Education) suggested that research should be more focused and should address areas of strategic priority identified by the government.

The case for these recommendations would be that as significant public money is being spent, at least some of it should be spent on finding solutions to national problems identified by elected governments. The case – maybe not against this proposition, but at least in partial qualification of it – might be that the academy cannot constantly be conscripted to follow the latest political fad; and that society benefits greatly from general research capacity building, and that curiosity based research is often responsible for some of our greatest advances.

An example of the problems this kind of approach may encounter can be found in the recent decision by the British government to make David Cameron’s concept of the ‘big society’ a required subject for at least some funded research. Apparently the government made the maintenance of the full funding for the Arts and Humanities Research Council conditional on a ‘significant’ amount of the money being spent on the ‘big society’ idea. This has generated accusations that the government is using public money to give academic respectability to what is really just a political slogan.

It is a tricky issue. The ‘big society’ concept has already been the subject of some academic analysis anyway: for example, in this seminar at the University of Southampton. If public money were being allocated on the condition that researchers validate a political slogan or a particular party’s policies, then we would be moving into territory that might more comfortably be left to Libyan leader Colonel Gadaffi.  But a more impartial approach to analyzing government policies, including analysis of a central policy platform, may be less of a problem. But even then some may feel that any government direction of the subject areas for academic research crosses a line.

It seems likely to me that it is no longer realistic to expect governments, with scarce resources to distribute, to stay away from any kind of prioritisation of research areas. However, what could not be acceptable would be any attempt to make research focus on partisan political concepts. Furthermore, what must also be ensured is that any such process does not take over the whole academy, and that independent research, including research with no particular policy agenda or strategic focus, is also maintained in significant volume. That is the deal that higher education must aim to strike.

Research and jobs

August 13, 2010

Conor Lenihan, Ireland’s Minister for Science, Technology and Innovation, was recently reported as explaining the link between the funding of university research and job creation.

I confess I am always nervous whenever a politician links research expenditure with job creation. It is not that there isn’t a connection, but rather the connection is not as direct as most politicians would like. If you give a government grant to a company to create 1,000 jobs, you get 1,000 jobs (at least for a while). If you give the same amount to a university research team, you’ll probably get around 12 jobs. This disturbs some politicians, who feel that they cannot sell this expenditure to their voters; and so the politicians sometimes move to exaggerate the jobs impact – and as we have seen, sometimes universities themselves play along with that.

Perhaps the most useful approach in all of this would be to stop talking about job ‘creation’ more generally. Jobs become available and are sustained on the back of viable economic activity, and this is where the emphasis must lie. Public money increasingly cannot ‘create’ jobs at all, but it can create an environment in which employment develops. And research is perhaps the most effective way of achieving this in an advanced economy.

In fact the Minister’s statement recognised some of these nuances, but that may be lost in the overall focus on the impact on jobs. It may be counter-productive to try to list the jobs that have been ‘created’ or facilitated by major research funding. It is better to talk about Ireland’s potential to be a recognised home for high value knowledge in areas that are key to economic and social development. That’s where the future lies.

Guest blog: The other Lisbon agenda and investment in higher education

January 22, 2010

By Professor Frank Gannon
Director-General of Science Foundation Ireland


In the recent past, the whole country became very familiar with – even transfixed by – the Lisbon Treaty, with most of us adopting a Yes, No or Maybe position. Less familiar for many, however, was a parallel yet entirely unrelated ‘Lisbon’ Strategy, also known as the ‘Lisbon Agenda’ or ‘Lisbon Process’, issued in March 2000. This Lisbon Agenda involved the Heads of the EU countries declaring a decade ago that the EU would become the world’s leading knowledge-based economy by 2010. That was followed up at a meeting of the Heads of State in Barcelona that stated that every EU country would, by 2010, invest 3 per cent of GDP in R&D (GERD), with two-thirds of this coming from the private sector and the remainder from the public/government funds. Ireland was a signatory to these agreements.

The fact is that, in 2000, Ireland was a long way off spending that amount on R&D. Realism was shown when the Strategy for Science Technology and Innovation (SSTI) plotted expenditure such that 2.4 per cent of Gross National Product (more appropriate for Ireland than Gross Domestic Product) would be invested by Ireland by 2013. The record shows that, since then, Ireland was one of the few countries that consistently increased its investment in R&D in the years up to 2009.

But the 3 per cent target always had two implicit ‘get-out’ clauses. The first came from the fact that Government policy can do very little to ensure that the private sector (and in Ireland this means, predominantly, the multi-national companies) would increase their engagement in R&D such that the 2 per cent (a two-thirds portion of the 3 per cent) attributed to them would be delivered. The second variable is the denominator of GNP. As it diminished in the last year, the recorded GERD for Ireland will increase in 2009 when the statistics are calculated. Perversely, all of the EU data will show an increase because of that macro change. It is more realistic to compare the real money invested. The last such comparison that I saw showed that the EU was spending the same amount of money as the USA had 20 years ago. And it is money – not ratios – that counts!

Now a new EU report, The Role of Community Research Policy in the Knowledge-Based Economy, by Soete presents a different 3 per cent target to be reached by 2020. In this, the focus is on 1 per cent expenditure on R&D by every EU Member State (i.e. omitting the contribution from enterprise and charities) and 2 per cent on higher education. The first part of this new proposal is one that I wrote about in 2003 (Government rhetoric and their R&D expenditure EMBO reports 4, 2, 117–120 (2003) and is within the grasp of Ireland. We are in the top-10 EU countries for this statistic and I hope that consistency of policy (reiterated in the latest Revised Programme for Government) will ensure that we achieve it well before 2020.

The new focus on investment in higher education helps to stress the connection that most commentators make between the higher education institutes (HEIs) and the ‘smart economy’ of the future. It would seem that the road to achieving this 2 per cent will be more difficult for Ireland and most other countries. The EU average is 1.3 per cent spent on higher education, and that compares poorly with 3 per cent in the USA (with private institutions having a major impact). Currently, we appear to be spending approximately 1 per cent of GDP on HEIs.

Doubling that spend on higher education will be a difficult challenge, but one that deserves attention. For both goals, the biggest hurdle is to get ‘buy-in’ that is reflected in the announcements made at budget time. If the roles of R&D and of the HEIs are not understood or appreciated, then death by a million cuts will follow. The question then will be: what is the new non-smart strategy for Ireland’s future economy? I presume it is not that we return to the economy of the 1980s when we were a low-cost location for manufacturing.

Being in Europe allows us to develop policies that have the benefit of analyses of similar countries. I presume that is why we accept policies such as the Barcelona/ Lisbon agendas. Let’s hope that we behave as Europeans in 2010 just as we have voted for Europe in 2009.

Funding research: concentration needed?

December 23, 2009

Right now in Britain an argument is raging between different parts of the higher education as to how university research should be funded: should it be concentrated in a small number of leading research universities (and allocated strategically on that basis), or should it be directed to those demonstrating excellence as assessed by peer reviewers, regardless of the status of the institution in which they work?

In the concentration corner we find the Russell Group, the alliance of research-intensive universities, arguing that ‘world class universities’ are best placed to deliver quality research that makes a visible impact. In the excellence-only corner we find the University Alliance, representing a number of ‘research-emgaged’ universities, arguing that the evidence says there is ‘no direct correlation between volume and excellence outside some of the physical sciences’. Standing somewhere between them (but closer to the Russell Group) is the British government’s Department for Business Innovation and Skills, which recently argued, in the paper Higher Ambitions: the future of universities in the knowledge economy:

‘We must use scarce resources well. In future this should mean more research concentration, not less, especially in the high cost scientific disciplines.In a diverse higher education system, not every institution should feel that maximising its success in the research assessment exercise or recruiting doctoral students is central to its mission.’

This is a discussion we may also be about to have in Ireland, so we should probably be paying attention. However, there are significant differences between the research communities in Britain and here. The UK has over 100 universities with very diverse missions and very different characteristics. Ireland has, on the whole, only research universities with each having also a strong teaching mission, and in addition the research community (partly as a result of 10 years of PRTLI) is strongly integrated across all institutions. Furthermore, the system has been developed successfully because all of the funding bodies have focused on excellence as the driving criterion.

We do however need concentration, even if not institution-focused. We cannot fund everything equally, unless we we feel we do not need to have any particular impact anywhere. We need to develop areas where we can achieve global; recognition and lead the world, and we need to select these carefully. The ‘areas’ are probably not disciplines, but rather ones based on problems we can address in our research, or collaborations that can lead the academic discussion. This has been successfully developed in the sciences, and we may now at least want to ask whether similar methods can be employed in the humanities – not in order to stop the lone individual researcher, but rather so as to network him or her with others so that academic visibility can be enhanced.

For the next phase of economic and social development, Ireland needs to be recognised for its research. That requires a united and collaborative academic community across all institutions (including, it should be added, the Institutes of Technology). It is important that we do not endanger such collaboration.

Does interdisciplinarity destroy academic freedom?

April 24, 2009

Here’s an interesting item: Thomas Docherty, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Warwick, has trained his guns at what he describes as the ‘new fashion’ of interdisciplinarity. Well, I suppose it all depends on what you consider to be ‘new’. As I argued in one of the early posts in this blog, you could say that in earlier ages almost all scholarship was interdisciplinary; and a spectacular example of an intellectual devoting himself to interdisciplinarity was Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, born 362 years ago.

In fairness, I think that Thomas Docherty has a more specific target: the attempt by research funding agencies to specify certain interdisciplinary themes in their funding programmes (he uses ‘science and heritage’ as an example). But he cannot really mean – and if we read further, we find he does not mean – that academics should not cast their eyes over the boundaries of the discipline into which they were trained. In fact, he goes on to recognise that his own ‘discipline’  of English grew out of other disciplines. So what is he on about? When stripped down to its essentials, his point really is that nobody, and in particular not those with money to fund research, should be suggesting to anyone else what aspects of life they should be researching. He believes that such funding programmes are all about securing the ‘compliance with policy’ of the academic community. So the latter should determine themselves what they propose to work on. Anything else erodes or destroys academic freedom.

There are two aspects to this, and both deserve a brief analysis. The first is Thomas Docherty’s attack on interdisciplinarity; and here he is on very shaky ground. Disciplines are all artificial to some extent, and reflect an understanding of knowledge at some point in history when they secured recognition. In the early development of universities, when they were essentially off-shoots of monasteries, the only disciplines were theology (the ‘queen of sciences’), philosophy and mathematics. It was only with the Enlightenment that other subjects were added. The biggest burst of new disciplines came in the 19th century with the growth of science and engineering, and then in the 20th century various ‘new’ profession-oriented subjects claimed the discipline label. Now there is a rather charming Wikipedia page that purports to ‘list’ all of the disciplines, and for what it’s worth (not much, I think) it comes up with 42. 

All of this is highly artificial. If we believe that disciplines are such because they can lay claim to unique intellectual tools that are different in each one, then we should think again. For example, Professor Docherty’s ‘discipline’ has (perfectly properly in intellectual terms) tried out all kinds of tools borrowed from other areas, such as political science, sociology, history, philosophy etc. It seems to me that there is no magic at all in the boundaries between disciplines, and they have merit (if they have that) chiefly because in each case the academy has created some pedagogical tools that have some use in educating students, and which might not be recreated effectively if a student’s education were to meander too much between all these areas. But that is almost entirely meaningless once you are talking about highly skilled academics undertaking expert research.

The second aspect is Thomas Docherty’s dislike of a set agenda for research. In a nutshell, he doesn’t think that the taxpayer has any business directing programmes of research. If taxpayers have any particular concerns or needs that research may solve, they should sit back and wait for the academic community to get there, all in their good time. But that is wholly unsustainable. We need to see academic research as fulfilling two functions, both of them deserving of funding and support. One is to push out the boundaries undirected; and the other is to answer those questions that society urgently needs to have solved. An example of an area of research that he really doesn’t think should be specifically funded by government is the environment; but we know that there are huge issues putting the planet in peril which the research community needs to address urgently, and it seems to me to be wholly silly to suggest that the government and its agencies cannot set out a ringfenced fund for this.

It is of course always right to be vigilant to ensure that academic autonomy is protected. But to argue that this precludes government from funding interdisciplinary research is absurd. There is nothing sacred about the subject areas we now sometimes call ‘disciplines’. Our academic ancestors would have been horrified to hear that, say, ‘management’  or ‘architecture’ might be considered a discipline. So let us not think that there is anything sacred about their boundaries; or that society as a whole has no business asking us questions that cannot be answered from just within one of them; or even less, that society has no business asking our scholars any questions at all.

The appliance of science

August 5, 2008

This blog is coming to you from the United States of America. Over the past 24 hours I have shared in what is, these days, the air traveller’s standard experience: the sheer misery of overcrowded airports, flight delays and cramped conditions in the plane. Maybe a reflection for another time. But the delay in Newark airport – over several hours – allowed me to sit in front of a TV screen and watch C-SPAN. If there is one thing that marks out America for me as a mature political society, it’s C-SPAN – and I say that not only because I was once featured on it.

Today I was able to watch Barack Obama on the channel, somewhere in Michigan, setting out his stall on energy policy. But what struck me most in his comments was his commitment to significant funding for science research, as the basis for innovation that will alleviate energy problems and global warming. Innovation needs to be funded and supported – as the US has always recognised. It is to be hoped that our own approach to innovation will show a similar understanding and determination, not just in research, but also in the educational activities that produce the qualified people who can do the research later; and that we will remain consistent in less certain economic times.

Solving the major environmental, health and social problems is not just about saying things in a determined manner – it is about understanding that what Science Faculties do in universities will often be applied to intractable technological and scientific problems – and that is where our future lies. And moreover, that is what will persuade global companies to continue to invest here.