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The Purpose and Funding of Research

March 13th, 2011 by Graham Attwell

Most of the debate over the future of Higher Education in the UK has focused on funding and within that of funding for teaching. And regarding research, the major concern has been obviously cutbacks in research funding. Of course that is a valid concern.

There has been less attention to the nature of research funding. The government’s main thrust would appear to be to encourage private sector funding of research. Of course there are trust funds concerned with the longer term benefits of research and of developing a public knowledge base. But much private sector funding is looking for short term return on funding. Nothing wrong with that. But in terms of developing knowledge it will inevitably skew the subjects of research. Secondly private sector companies will often be unwilling to share or make public the results fo such funded research. In the long term it all amounts to another step in the privatisation of education.

There are also concerns over the nature of public sector research funding. Talking in the Times Higher Education Supplement about the UK Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), Professor Delpy says:

… the RAE, which still determines the distribution of about £1.5 billion in annual quality-related research funding, had “driven a fantastically efficient and very competitive research base that has not helped people collaborate, because institutions have been measured against what they as individual institutions have done”.

He added: “You didn’t get extra brownie points because one-third of your research was collaborative.”

This in turn meant that universities’ promotion criteria typically did not reward collaborative efforts such as “enabling a whole area of research to gain large-scale funding from the European Union” by “corralling and marshalling” individual researchers to put together joint bids, Professor Delpy said.

In other words, the nature of funding and the policy drive for competition between universities and even between departments, is inhibiting the development of collaborative research. Yet it is just such collaboration which can lead to new knowledge development and to the development of careers for emerging researchers.

Once more this illustrates the importance of the emerging debate over the purpose of education and the role of research within society.

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