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REF could do more to recognise collaboration, says University Alliance

Image: C.G.P. Grey [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

University Alliance, the group representing the UK’s business-focused universities, has argued that impact and collaboration could be "further recognised and incentivised by funding systems".

The comment was made in a report to be discussed at a "high-level roundtable of experts" from across higher education, industry and central government including No10, Treasury and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, convened by University Alliance.

Research Excellence in the 21st Century was published on 10 December, just a week ahead of the publication of the results of the Research Excellence Framework. The report’s authors say: "Research excellence can no longer be narrowly defined in terms of its reach within the academic community, but must deliver and articulate the wider benefits of research for society. Impact and collaboration are essential to delivering societal and economic benefits from excellent research cost-effectively, but could be further recognised and incentivised by funding systems."

The report also argues that research funding in the UK has become increasingly concentrated. It says that 75 per cent of mainstream quality-related funding from the funding councils was directed to institutions in the upper 20 per cent of the funding distribution in 2013–14, up from 73 per cent. This fifth quintile also receives over 90 per cent of research council funding, it says.

On the other hand, University Alliance universities have 12.7 per cent of all departments with 3 or 4* research but receive only 3 per cent of research council and QR funding.

The report says that the idea that critical mass leads to research excellence is a myth in all but a few subjects. Except where capital costs make larger teams more effective—such as in some of the physical and clinical sciences and in pharmaceutical research—quality is a driver of scale, the paper says, with smaller units that carry out good research acquiring additional resources to grow, but larger units not improving with extra funds.

In support of this assertion, the paper refers to an analysis of the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise results by a branch of Thompson Reuters, which it says found no direct correlation between volume and excellence in 69 of the 72 units of assessment. Furthermore, even where volume was found to correlate with quality, there was no point of critical mass, the paper says.

The paper also compares the UK with the United States, which it says is by most measures the world leader in R&D but has a lower concentration of funding than the UK, and with Germany, which it says has a policy of concentration but does not surpass the UK in terms of quality. So, concentrating resources on the basis of scale would eliminate small and medium-sized areas of excellence, the report says.

University Alliance also says that research funding should continue to be allocated through a dual-support system and on the basis of open competition on quality, institutional autonomy and expert peer review. 

The roundtable discussion and additional consultation responses will be incorporated into a final report on research excellence, to be published in 2015.