England

In discussing university research in general, many interviewees expressed the view that there was increasingly less money available for curiosity driven basic research due to the increasing importance of non-public funding and government priorities and impact playing a role in public funding. Potentially resulting from this there was increasing emphasis on larger, collaborative, interdisciplinary research and the professionalization of researchers. Whilst the interviewees seemed to generally sympathise with the reason for these policies from government and the tax payer perspectives, many also expressed the worry that this could go too far and threaten the traditional mission of a university for which basic research was still regarded as academically the most valuable. Additionally, despite competition for funding having become generally fierce, differences between subjects were detected with subjects such as medical sciences, engineering and chemistry attracting funding more easily whilst the humanities, pure mathematic and astrophysics found it more difficult. Whilst this could partly stem from government priorities and the emotive character of medicine, differences in culture between disciplines might also facilitate this divide, with researchers in the social sciences and humanities being less eager to apply. An interviewee from a newcomer university, however, also mentioned that it depended somewhat on the university’s strength making it easier for certain universities to attract funding in areas generally regarded as difficult. Within subjects, as many interviewees remarked, certain topics would always be preferred (e.g. connective community, digital economy, climate change and renewable energy).

Regarding university culture, it was felt that there have been significant changes in recent years. Whilst TRAC fEC[1] was generally regarded positively by the interviewees, since it helped to achieve financial sustainability, one interviewee from a university in the North of England mentioned that the application of TRAC fEC could lead to inequality between universities as costs drivers such as buildings and salaries varied significantly between universities. Additionally, full costs were not always paid requiring research offices to look out for a healthy mix of funders with at least some paying more than full cost, something which could influence the decision whether or not to apply for a grant. Equally, other conditions (e.g. ethics, required partners and legal issues) could determine whether or not a project could take place. Researchers would also occasionally be encouraged, or even required, to find university-wide collaborations on interdisciplinary themes, since otherwise their topic might find funding difficult to obtain. On the other hand, universities also occasionally actively encouraged academics to apply for certain grants. Another pressure regarding research council funding, mentioned by many interviewees, would arise when research councils limit the number of applications universities could submit thereby making the whole process less transparent due to incoherent internal pre-selection. A few interviewees expressed their feeling that generally universities were expected to do more for less and to strict deadlines. Such deadlines would also often require the subcontracting of elements of a project not conducted by the principal investigator (PI) rather than employing another researcher due to the high administrative requirements in universities for personnel appointments. A few interviewees mentioned that these changes were ‘quite a culture change for academics’ who, in particular, felt that their academic freedom would be limited.

Overall the interviewees expected public funding to decrease further in the future with impact, performance indicators and priority areas gaining in impor- tance.[2] Some feared this might increase the divide between institutions as well as subjects. Such concentration could narrow opportunities, as the current government had

a very narrow view of what the universities can do in terms of helping the British economy. It’s very focussed on technology and innovation and I don’t think it’s, even then, a particularly expansive view of what innovation is. And the danger is that in their desperation to resolve the economic crisis that they’re in, they will just narrow it down more and more and more [...] [thereby weakening Britain’s] position of influence and contribution, because some of the areas where we have expertise will, without appropriate funding, will just be lost.

Many interviewees believed, therefore, that EU funding and other non-public funders, including third sector organisations and foreign funding, would gain in importance. English universities would become gradually more eligible for the latter, since funders would increasingly want to fund cutting edge research wherever it took place and foreign researchers would bring such grants with them. Such funding would, however, also increase risk and administrative difficulties due to different languages and jurisdictions.[3] Finally, many interviewees expected open access and new media technology to gain in importance. Concerns were raised with regards to the former, as it would, again, be more difficult in the arts as well as being costly for universities and mainly benefit the publishers.

  • [1] TRAC fEC is the full costing element of the Transparent Approach to Costing implemented inEngland. See further Chap. 4 (Sect. 4.2.2.4) above.
  • [2] The interviewees seem to be proven true in this respect considering the recent policy developments, in particular the review of the research councils (Nurse 2015) and the White Paper (BIS2016).
  • [3] These problems may, in the future, also play a role as regards EU funding or funding fromother EU Member States with the UK withdrawing from the EU. On such concerns see CresseyD (2016) UK government gives Brexit science funding guarantee. nature, 15 August 2016http://www.nature.com/news/uk-government-gives-brexit-science-funding-guarantee-1.20434.Accessed 17 August 2016, Matthews D and Morgan J (2016) Brexit: growing numbers of UKacademics face EU funding worries. THE, 5 July 2016 https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/brexit-growing-numbers-uk-academics-face-eu-funding-woriies. Accessed 17 August 2016,Toor A (2016) UK scientists face an uncertain future after Brexit vote. The Verge, 24 June 2016http://www.nature.com/news/uk-government-gives-brexit-science-funding-guarantee-1.20434.Accessed 17 August 2016.
 
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