Published online 16 October 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2009.1008

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UK faces tough questions over research funding

Universities told international collaborations will be key.

View of CMS detectorInternational collaborations such as CERN could be the way forward for research in difficult economic times.CERN

International collaboration in scientific projects and facilities will become increasingly important in the tight fiscal environment following the global recession, the UK government's top civil servant for research told university leaders this week.

At a meeting in London on the future of UK research funding, Adrian Smith, director-general for science and research at the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, said "serious questions" need to be asked about how research will be funded in the future.

These questions include whether "we understand what we need to do to collaborate internationally", said Smith. One of the major issues "yet to be cracked" is how best to combine international investments in scientific projects, he added.

Although there are some examples of collaboration, such as CERN, the European particle-physics lab near Geneva, Switzerland, Smith said robust international mechanisms for cooperation are lacking.

"This is a big challenge going forward," he told the meeting.

Questions also need to be asked about the balance between three major government funding streams for research and innovation, Smith said. The Higher Education Innovation Fund, which provides money to universities for technology transfer, currently receives around £150 million (US$244 million) per year and the Technology Strategy Board, which funds business-led projects, around £400 million per year. The third stream, 'quality related' (QR) funding, which goes to universities for research, has an annual budget of £1.5 billion per year.

Smith added that thought should also be given to whether enough funding is invested in directed research programmes that tackle global grand challenges, such as energy or ageing populations.

Inappropriate pressure

Speaking after Smith at the conference, David Eastwood, vice-chancellor of the University of Birmingham, rejected any notion that QR funds should be cut to divert the money elsewhere. He likened QR to the funding US institutions receive from endowments, saying it "underpins autonomy" and allows universities to invest in high-risk areas.

"Any pressure on QR would not be appropriate," he said.

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Others at the 14 October conference were more concerned about how Britain's new system for auditing research quality, which will help decide how QR is divided up between institutions, will pan out. Draft proposals for the new system, known as the Research Excellence Framework, were published on 23 September. The system would use peer review to judge the quality of work, like the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) that it will replace. But research would also undergo an 'impact assessment' to judge its potential benefit to the economy or society.

The meeting was organized by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), an independent think tank based in Oxford, which used the event to launch a report on its response to the draft proposals for the framework.

Bahram Bekhradnia, director of HEPI, was a staunch critic of the government's original plans published in 2006 for reforming the RAE, which would have seen peer review take a back seat in the assessment process. At the meeting, he welcomed the new proposals. "They are so much better than what went before," he said. However, he urged that plans to assess research on its impact be handled carefully. The HEPI report questions whether "untested and experimental" impact assessments should make up as much as 25% of the judgement as currently proposed. 

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