Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Concentration: the Agenda that Won't Go Away

I responded here to rumblings from Phil Willis on the need to concentrate research funding on the favoured few. Prof Dominic Abrams did likewise here. He highlighted the inherent contradiction in the messages coming from government. When it comes to investing in commercial organisations, the government emphsises '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'. Likewise, in the finance sector, 'most stockbrokers like to spread their investments in terms of size and risk, because, over the long term, this is the most profitable strategy.'

So why is it so different for research funding? 'Critical mass' is the usual justification used by advocates of concentration. We need to be big in order to compete globally. We need to be pool our resources, and not salami slice the limited budget. But this, I would argue, is bad for risk taking, creativity, and innovation. The system is already skewed towards safe, empire-sustaining research (incidentally, it's worth having a look at Tim Harford's piece on Mario Capecchi in relation to this); what we need is more funding (including small-scale funding) for risk-taking pilot projects, wherever they originate.

Which is why it was so refreshing to read Professor Les Ebdon's counterblast to concentration in the Guardian yesterday. His article marked the publication of Research that Matters (pdf) by the thinktank Million+. This highlights the fact that modern (or post-92) universities get relatively little central research funding, but manage to leverage a great deal of activity and investment from this. Why should more be taken from them? Wouldn't it be better to invest more, rather than less, in pockets of excellence, wherever they're found, rather than continuing to subsidise the large, inefficient, risk-averse behemoths?

Prof Ebdon finishes his piece by pointing to notable - and perhaps surprising - successes, including research to tackle disease in sub-Saharan Africa that was undertaken at the University of Greenwich, and has been voted one of the 10 most important discoveries to be made in a UK university in the last 60 years.

I'm sure the 'concentration' juggernaut will continue to rumble on, but we shouldn't accept it as a done deal. The more that people question it, and highlight its failings, the better for the long term health of UK research.

No comments:

Post a Comment