Academic Funding

Time to concentrate?

March 24, 2011 1046

UK Government and research funding agencies are pursuing a strategy of focusing and concentrating the funding of social science research into a smaller number of key universities, research groups, themes or programmes. This concentration is reflected either explicitly or implicitly in the Delivery Plans of the different research councils. The principle guiding the strategy is that ‘critical mass’ is essential to sustain excellent social science. Does this principle stand up to scrutiny? How has it been tested? What are its implications?

Undoubtedly there are major social science investments that should be sustained. These include large longitudinal surveys, important databases and key monitoring and intervention studies. However, to invest hugely in these without also attending sufficiently to the many other important sources of social science theory and evidence is risky. In particular, the temptation to assume that the large investments will, on their own, be sufficient to sustain UK social science is problematic.

Massively unequal systems create visible excellence (the fabulous hotel surrounded by slums) but do not necessarily produce the best overall or modal outcomes. In sport, industry and business, there are examples where concentrating investments has led to vulnerability, underperformance, or even catastrophe for the system as a whole. Might the same risks apply to social science research?

The government is currently emphasising the value and role of small businesses and enterprises as the basis for growth. It is argued that there should be fewer barriers and thresholds for these businesses to compete for contracts, for work and to develop – quite the reverse of concentration, or the notion of ‘critical mass’.

Indeed, the reverse reasoning is applied in the case of a strategy for building our research strength. Research selectivity funding already is reserved primarily for departments that previously produced work of more than national excellence (ensuring continued investment in the past rather than the future). Based on these and other thresholds, including critical mass, many UK universities and departments are, or may soon be, barred from applying for research grants of various sorts, ineligible to submit applications for research council postgraduate studentships, or else are required to be involved in consortia arrangements. If an excellent student or researcher want to pursue their research but happens to be in an excluded department or institution, they have to abandon their work or move (assuming there is any appetite for their work).

Research funders such as ESRC and the British Academy have recently abandoned ‘small’ grant provision, meaning that more speculative, risky and exploratory work by individual researchers simply cannot be supported by them. Instead, the focus is on projects which are large and assured of success (reviewing procedures are inherently critical and suspicious of any loose ends or risks). Funded projects seem increasingly likely to be awarded to ‘established’ researchers who are already surrounded by, or have, the connections and infrastructure for their work. At a time when social science is becoming globally more diverse and competitive, what we risk is developing relatively elite but orthodox islands of social science, with rather conventional and homogeneous perspectives on how to understand society.

In the last 20 years or so UK social science has drawn heavily on international expertise from the new ideas and skills brought by academics recruited from many different countries. Universities’ investment in building their research capability in this way has strengthened UK social sciences as a whole, not only in research but also in our teaching and contribution to policy. Too much concentration of the limited research funding may also mean that we become less attractive to international scholars and thereby squander this strength.

Moreover, the very diversity and flexibility of our system shows that critical mass can be attained in ways that do not require physical concentration. Researchers’ networks are national and international but they are typically informal rather than being locked into institutional structures. Their interests and expertise (particularly in social science) can range from the microdynamics of a specific cultural context to large scale social and economic phenomena. There does not seem to be an obvious way to determine where expertise will be, or where and when it will be needed. It could be argued that a good spread of expertise and research infrastructure is essential to be able to address new and unforeseeable questions.

Other than the argument that financial constraints mean that less can be funded, I have not come across a convincing, evidence-based justification for increased concentration of research as opposed to other methods of belt-tightening. Most stockbrokers like to spread their investments in terms of size and risk, because, over the long term, this is the most profitable strategy. Maybe academic research is different. But imagine a strategy that argued we should concentrate our investment in schools primarily into those that already do well, without trying to raise the standards of the others, a strategy that we should only invest health resources in things we can already cure, a strategy of widening all the motorways but not maintaining the interconnecting roads, and a strategy of having one delightful park in each town but no playing spaces within reach of most neighbourhoods. Any of these strategies might be questioned vigorously because of their unsustainability and their failure to meet the needs of the population as a whole. Can we be confident that focusing our research investments into a smaller part of our academic system makes sense in the longer term?

Professor Dominic Abrams, FBPS, FAcSS, FBA, is professor of social psychology and director of the Centre for the Study of Group Processes at the School of Psychology, University of Kent.

View all posts by Dominic Abrams

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Phil Ward

An interesting and measured analysis. I think Phil Willis (who recently gave voice to the growing belief in certain sectors that concentration is the only way forward in a globalised environment at a time of cuts) has the potential to undo the good of the last RAE in identifying and rewarding excellent research, wherever it take place. Interesting to set the ‘concentration agenda’ against the policy in other areas (such as commerce and finance), where it is seen as logical and sensible to spread risk and encourage development and growth of smaller and newer enterprises. I’d also add that such… Read more »