Posted tagged ‘research’

Brexit and EU research funding – some necessary certainty?

August 16, 2016

Last week the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, issued a statement, which inter alia contained the following assurance:

‘Where UK organisations bid directly to the European Commission on a competitive basis for EU funding projects while we are still a member of the EU, for example universities participating in Horizon 2020, the Treasury will underwrite the payments of such awards, even when specific projects continue beyond the UK’s departure from the EU. As a result, British businesses and universities will have certainty over future funding and should continue to bid for competitive EU funds while the UK remains a member of the EU.’

British universities will undoubtedly welcome this statement, which at any rate removes the financial risk they could face by applying for EU research funds at this point. The statement may not however resolve the main problem facing British universities in this context, which is that European universities are now reluctant to include UK institutions in research consortia at all, and will certainly not accept them as leaders of any consortium.

All of this underscores the importance of clarifying government policy in relation to EU research programmes, such as Horizon 2020. If it is thought desirable for Britain to continue in these programmes it would be useful to state this as a policy objective right now, to provide some re-assurance to European partners. There is no conceivable benefit for Britain not to be included.

This should be a government priority right now, not least because it also supports the case for the UK as a location for high value, knowledge-intensive foreign direct investment; a case that the Brexit decision has somewhat undermined as one of the potentially significant unintended consequences. It is time to act.

Diversifying the university ‘business’

February 1, 2016

While some of the most prominent universities internationally have an array of activities that include teaching, research, consulting, managing intellectual property and so forth, and while their financial accounts often reflect this diversity, overwhelmingly most universities are heavily dependent on income from one particular activity and one source of revenue: teaching undergraduate students, funded by the state. In this role universities are public agencies providing a vitally important and strategic service to national goals.

But they are also financially highly vulnerable. Their organisational health depends on the ability of their key funder to keep increasing their income in line with both inflation and the university’s strategic development goals – but almost no state can guarantee that kind of financial stability, and pressures on public money will quite regularly force governments to cut higher education funding, usually moving the funding baseline downwards as they do so. In the meantime the reliance on teaching prevents the institutions from developing a high profile reputation globally, which is really only achievable through high value research. Therefore a teaching-focused university threatened by public funding pressures has little with which to market itself to other potential funders or customers. The same may even be true of a privately funded teaching-only institution, which would still be vulnerable to market shifts affecting its customers and a lack of alternative products.

The answer to this problem is to behave, at least in some respects, more like the prominent high value research universities – while at the same time managing to find a set of priorities and values that distinguish them from those institutions. This view of how universities should behave in order to be sustainable was suggested in a recent comment on the US system in the Washington Post. The author, a former editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education, suggested that ‘the strongest universities are those that depend on more than just students for their revenue’, and that institutions should in particular ‘double down on their research efforts to attract new dollars.’ Of course there are many different ways of tackling a research strategy, and there are other ways also of developing revenue streams based on skills and knowledge; for example an increasing number of universities are now presenting themselves as commercial consulting firms.

It has been suggested for some time that an increasing number of universities may be financially at risk. To avoid slipping into this state and to ensure sustainability, higher education institutions would do well to diversify and to ensure that their portfolio is not excessively focused on just one particular activity.

The fear of genetics

August 20, 2015

Ten years ago or so I had a meeting with members of the local community living in the vicinity of the university I was then leading, Dublin City University. They had asked for the meeting to express their concerns about the development of the university’s National Institute of Cellular Biotechnology. More particularly, they were concerned, as one gentleman expressed it, that we were up to ‘Frankenstein kind of things’. I guess he was thinking of Dolly the sheep, and was wondering whether we might take that a few steps further in our newly funded institute. I explained to him that what my colleagues were working on was diabetes and cancer. My visitors were somewhat reassured, but a small group remarked to me, as they were leaving, that GMOs (genetically modified organisms) were undoubtedly evil. Why, I asked. Because everyone knows they are, they replied.

A little later, in 2008, the then newly installed Irish coalition wrote into its programme for government that Ireland would be a ‘GMO-free zone’. I was appalled by this, as I felt it would convey a signal to others that Ireland would not be willing to engage in scientific innovation in some of the areas where that would be needed most and offered the most promise; and the Irish Times published a piece setting out my views. And now all this has been brought up again for me as the Scottish Rural Affairs Secretary, Richard Lochhead MSP, has announced that there will be a ban on growing genetically modified crops in Scotland. This decision has been criticised by a number of research organisations and universities and has been the subject of some media discussion. The Minister has assured his critics that there will be no ban on research carried out in controlled conditions, but the reality probably is that those seeking to do and to fund such research will not choose a location where the process is seen to be contrary to public policy. Innovation will go elsewhere.

In both nutrition and life sciences, scientific innovation has tended over the last decade or two to focus on genetics. This isn’t altogether new. Insulin, with which diabetes is treated and which has been around since 1922, is a GMO. A good deal of medical research has moved, over recent years, from chemical synthesis to biopharmaceutical remedies, and this trend is accelerating. The capacity to feed the world as the population continues to grow may come to depend on GMO research.

For those who are not expert in this field the available literature – or often, the propaganda – on both sides of the GMO argument is unhelpful, because both sides use ‘evidence’ that is not easily verifiable by the rest of us. But there are few signs of ‘Frankenstein kind of things’ damaging us or our environment. In any case, we need to continue to do research, and we should not place it into a setting of general suspicion that is not visibly evidence-based. The idea that innovation should exclude genetics is a dangerous one.

Scientific discovery and technological innovation has its risks and needs ethical oversight, but we must also remember that it has done more than anything else in human history to make possible the feeding of the hungry, the healing of the sick, and the combating of poverty. We should not abandon that lightly. By all means let us make sure that new experiments with GMOs are properly controlled and subject to appropriate safety checks. But let us not start with the assumption, without the need for any proper evidence, that this is a form of innovation to be opposed.

I strongly hope the Scottish government will re-consider its decision on this issue.

In this game is the REF to blame?

December 23, 2014

Anyone working in and around higher education in the United Kingdom will have been obsessing about the ‘Research Excellence Framework’ (REF) over the past week. According to the REF website, it is ‘the new system for assessing the quality of research in UK higher education institutions’. A total of 154 institutions made 1,911 submissions to this exercise, and last week they found out how they had fared. The results will influence a number of things, including league table positions of universities and public funding. They will also have reinforced a trend to focus research attention and funding on a smaller number of institutions.

REF is the successor to the Research Assessment Exercise, which in turn had been around since the 1980s. The first one of these I had to deal with was conducted in 1992, when I was Dean of the Law School of the University of Hull. While I believe I was rather successful in managing the RAE, in that my department improved hugely between 1992 and the next exercise in 1998, I now believe that most of the decisions we took were good for the RAE and bad for research. In fact, that could be the overall summary for the whole process across the country from the beginnings right up to last week’s REF.

And here are three reasons.

  1. The RAE and REF have, despite claims to the contrary, punished interdisciplinarity, because the units of assessment overwhelmingly focus on outputs within rather than between disciplines. The future of research is interdisciplinary – but academics worried about REF will be wary of focusing too much on such work.
  2. Despite the way in which it aims to reward international recognition, a key impact of the RAE/REF framework is to promote mediocrity. For funding and related reasons, many institutions will try to drive as many academics as possible into published research, spending major resources on pushing average researchers to perform – resources that should really be devoted to supporting those who have the most promise. Of course some excellent researchers have been able to thrive, but in many institutions the RAE/REF process has hindered rather than supported real excellence. On top of that it has diverted some staff from doing what they do really well into doing things they don’t much like. One of the casualties of that, incidentally, is collegiality.
  3. The RAE/REF has produced a stunning bureaucratisation of research. A key difference between research management in my last university in Ireland (where there is no such exercise) and in my current one is the extraordinary amount of time staff have to put into the tactical, operational and administrative maintenance of the REF industry. Also, I shudder to think how much time and resources institutions will have spent last week managing the news of the results. Industrial-scale bureaucracy of course also produces huge costs.

Other equally good reasons for doubting the value of REF have been given by Professor Derek Sayer of Lancaster University, writing in the Guardian.

I am not against competition in research, nor do I believe that research performance should not be monitored. But the RAE/REF process is about ranking universities rather than promoting research. I have no reason to think that anyone who matters is listening, but it is time to think again about this process.

How do we know what we know?

March 24, 2014

While drinking a cup of cappuccino in a very nice coffee shop recently, I overheard two students discussing research methods for their essays. Both of them believed that they had correctly identified the solution to a particular scientific – I think biomedical – problem, but neither was sure on what evidence they could base it. So one of them pulled out his mobile phone and tweeted the question. Within two minutes they apparently had received 38 responses, with 21 of these suggesting one particular source, 8 another, and the remaining 9 (according to one of the students) ‘just spouting rubbish’. So the 21 were deemed to have the winning formula, and I believe that this is what both submitted in their essays.

It was, I suppose, a form of crowdsourcing. And of course this doesn’t just get used as a research tool for students. Last week we read that online crowdsourcing was used to identify the likely flight direction of the missing Malaysian flight MH370. Or how about Californian Assemblyman Mike Gatto, who is using Twitter to help him draft legislation which he would like to see enacted? Others again have taken to crowdsourcing to predict stock market movements. A cancer research charity is using crowdsourcing to analyse medical data.

For those still struggling with the validity or otherwise of using Wikipedia as a research tool, the ever more informal and broad ranging methods of research made possible by the internet must seem a major challenge. In part this is because, increasingly, we are processing information supplied by large numbers of people about whose credentials we know, and seek to know, nothing at all; and yet we may trust what they advise us. This raises completely new notions about the validation of information and data.

In the past, when I was first doing research, our task was to acquire knowledge and based on that knowledge carry out analysis, each step of which we could document and justify. If those were our intellectual tools, how shall we respond to a new age in which we throw questions into cyberspace and wait for an answer, whose validity we cannot document beyond the volume of the response? Do we need to review the whole idea of what constitutes knowledge?

2014 and the higher education agenda

January 7, 2014

For the past two weeks or so, and like much of the rest of society around here, this blog took a holiday. But now we are well into 2014, and it is time to consider what this year might bring.

If you follow some discussions of higher education, the impression you might get is that it is all about two things: how universities and colleges are funded, and how they are run. A more recent perspective has been added by some movements that have sprung up in the academic community, such as the ‘Campaign for the Public University‘ in Britain and ‘Defend the Irish University‘ in Ireland. These have focused on the status of higher education as a ‘public good’ rather than a private benefit for students – with resulting implications for funding and management.

What gets much less air time is the substance of higher education: what it does, and how it can best do it. There has, over the past year or two, been some discussion about so-called MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses); but apart from that, there is little public debate about pedagogy, or about the changing contours of knowledge, or the potential benefits to society of different kinds of scholarship. There is discussion about whether economic impact is a legitimate consideration in higher education strategy, but relatively little about how universities can provide leadership in social, cultural and economic renewal.

I have no doubt that this blog will continue to address the funding and management issues; but I hope we can also discuss a little more how higher education can develop and reinvent itself in its education and knowledge dimension. That’s my hope for 2014.

Making sense of research

March 5, 2013

Most (though not all) academic research is funded by the taxpayer. Depending on how ambitious this funding is, it allows universities to attract and retain some of the brightest thinkers and innovators. It also allows countries to present themselves as locations in which academic excellence can add significant value to industrial and commercial development. But are these two objectives easily compatible? Is research strengthened or devalued – or neither or both – by association with national economic objectives?

These issues have been in the news again, in both Scotland and Ireland, over the past week. In Ireland the government announced an investment of €200 million, to be spent on ‘seven world class research centres of scale’, in a new programme of funding managed by Science Foundation Ireland. The money will be made available to these centres, which consist of partnerships between a number of Irish universities and 156 companies; the latter will contribute a further €100 million. The funded research programmes will, according to the two government ministers at the launch, be ‘closely aligned to industry and enterprise needs, job opportunities and societal goals’. The significant amount of funding involved also indicates that this is where Ireland will focus taxpayer support for research.

Let us leave that for a moment and look at what hit the news in Scotland. There the Principal of St Andrews University , in a wide-ranging interview with the Times newspaper on the occasion of the university’s 600th anniversary, suggested that an independent Scotland might lose access to UK research council funding – a development she saw as potentially apocalyptic for her university’s scholarly activities: ‘We would lose our top academics, we would fail to attract serious academics [from other countries].’ And this is why: according to the Times, ‘she said that when small countries set up their own councils, research tended to be funded for political reasons rather than being based on pure excellence.’

The St Andrews Principal, Professor Louise Richardson (who comes from Co Waterford in Ireland), therefore obviously doesn’t think much of Ireland’s research landscape. Indeed she may fear that exactly what was announced in Ireland last week would be ‘catastrophic’ for universities like St Andrews if it materialised in Scotland.

Whether this kind of evaluation is right or wrong depends in part on what we think research is for, and despite the very long pedigree of academic scholarship, this is something on which we don’t really have any consensus. It is part of the narrative used by contemporary critics of higher education policy that the latter focuses too closely, or maybe at all, on economic and social goals. For some, research is about freeing the mind to go where it can, and to find whatever may be there. Some of that may be usable in a practical sense once discovered (and much of it is), but all of it will help to maintain intellectual curiosity and scholarly excellence. But for others, research is about ‘translation’ – about taking discovery and harnessing its impact for the benefit of society in a targeted way. Today’s world has concerns and needs in areas such as health, security, food and nutrition, transport, social transformation, cultural creativity and so forth, and when the taxpayer funds research it should yield targeted benefits in such areas. And Professor Richardson is right: politicians in smaller countries may want to focus more on the translational, ‘practical’ dimension of research.

The easy answer is to say that there must be room (and some money) for both outlooks. But that is probably too easy. While the principle of academic freedom, involving the right of researchers to pursue their own directions of scholarship and the protection of the integrity of their work, must continue to be at the heart of the academy and its relations with the rest of society, it is also reasonable to say that the taxpayer is entitled to seek that the funding they provide will address the urgent issues they face. Therefore the kind of research in priority areas funded by Science Foundation Ireland is a coherent response to such expectations, provided there are safeguards for the integrity of the programmes. And so Professor Richardson may be right in what she expects in an independent or more autonomous Scotland. But she may be wrong to regard it as something to be feared.

Distributing research funding

October 30, 2012

I have nothing fundamentally against the Russell Group – some of my best friends work for member universities – but their statements do sometimes alarm me. For readers not familiar with the Russell Group, it is a London-based ‘mission group’ of (from its website) ’24 leading UK universities’. Its main role, as it understands this, is to promote the interests of these universities; though it has been suggested also that it is a would-be university cartel with price fixing on its mind. That may or may not be a fair comment, but, you know…

Anyway, the Russell Group has just published a paper in which it suggests that concentrating funding on a small number of research-intensive universities (by which it clearly means its member institutions) is in the wider public interest. The argument here is that intellectual excellence and knowledge innovation is promoted most effectively when it is resourced in a small but heavily promoted group of institutions, who then develop critical mass and are thus able to compete globally.

As we have noted here before, the idea of research concentration has taken hold of public policy formulation, and politicians in particular appear to be open to its attractions. But still, there is a fundamental flaw in the reasoning. National higher education systems do not gain international prominence because of a small number of favoured institutions: they gain recognition if the whole system demonstrates excellence. Knowledge-intensive investments in a country are made attractive by an overall culture of high value learning and research, not by pockets of achievement in a small number of institutions.

The task for the UK is to maintain a university sector which is recognisably excellent across the great majority of its institutions. This ensures also that excellence is both geographically spread (though probably in regional clusters) and nurtured within a variety of institutional missions. Research concentration promoted primarily in traditional universities will fail to secure some of the more desirable inward investment. To avoid unnecessary duplication, institutions should be encouraged to specialise in the more advanced areas, and then to pool key academics between universities in inter-intsitutional research programmes and partnerships.

It is of course right that research funding should not be distributed so widely that it is ineffective; it needs to be selective. But that selectivity should not focused on institutions; it should recognise excellent people, wherever they may work. So, with the greatest respect to our friends in the Russell Group, its approach to this should be viewed with some scepticism.

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

July 24, 2012

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.

Returning universities to a less complex age?

April 5, 2012

The following extract from a speech delivered by Ireland’s President, Michael D. Higgins, to the annual congress of the Union of Students in Ireland caught my eye:

‘What kind of a scholastic institution or community of learning is it when you hire a very important person who can bring investment to a university but doesn’t want to teach the main body of undergraduate students?’

There are all sorts of things wrapped up in the President’s question. First, there is an assumption that generating income for a university is not particularly significant. Secondly, there is at least by implication the suggestion that research detracts from a university’s teaching mission. Thirdly, there is a criticism of staff who do not teach, and assumption that there are many of these.

The President’s picture of contemporary Irish universities does not in reality stand up to much scrutiny. Researchers play a vital role in the life of a university. They develop scholarship and knowledge, and sustain a creative and innovative society. Mostly they do teach, often enthusiastically. The quality and standing of Irish universities has improved dramatically since they embarked upon a high value research agenda, from the late 1990s onwards. Students have also significantly benefited from this.

Of course it is good that President Higgins is stimulating debate and questioning value systems. But it would be better if this did not involve a caricature of the country’s universities, or a misunderstanding of what they do and of the contribution they make. The President is suggesting that there may have been a better, purer age of higher education. In truth there are a good many things that could be done better, and there are some developments over recent years that could usefully be questioned. High value research is not one of them.