Friday, 2 September 2011

Vive la Révolution! Oh, on Second Thoughts...

An interesting piece in this week's Times Higher had Paul Jump baying for the ESRC's blood as the Council announced its plunging success rates. The overall success rate fell to 16 per cent, 'a decline of one percentage point' screeched Jump, a modern day Tricoteuse, calling on Robert Dingwall to be his Robspierre and release the blade on the ESRC. Dingwall duly obliged. 'It may be time to put the ESRC out of its misery,' he intoned, sadly, suggesting that it might be just as well to distribute the money via QR funding.

Dingwall's view echoes that of Baroness Greenfield, also quoted by Jump in the THE in May. 'Her "very heretical" suggestion...is to abolish the research councils and research excellence framework and divide the research budget, along with the "vast sums saved from the bureaucracy", equally among researchers.'

Is there some kind of agenda amongst the sans-culottes of the Times Higher? Part of me is quite attracted by these radical suggestions. There is a sense in the community that going for Research Council funding is now little better than a lottery. And perhaps Baroness Greenfield has a point: she suggests that we divvy the Research Council budget (c£2.5bn) amongst all those who submitted to the RAE. This, she calculates, would result in something like £82-£100k each per year. It would certainly save us all a lot of bother.

But hold on. A more sceptical - and balanced - view comes from Adam Golberg at Nottingham. He, generously, puts a lot of the rhetoric in the article down to old fashioned journalese. 'It certainly got my attention,' he wryly notes. We still need the Research Councils, he suggests: the benefit of the current, dual support system is that whilst the Russell Group fat cats gets the lion's share of research funding, the project funding offered by the Research Councils allow the 'pockets of excellence' to still get funding for quality projects, wherever they're found. In addition, he notes the difference between a success rate based on all applications, and one based on viable applications. Apparently some 43% of ESRC applications never even made it to panel, and were withdrawn by the office or shot down by assessors. So if the denominator is effectively halved, it makes a much more healthy success rate.

So put down the pitchforks and Phrygian caps, and pause for thought. Now, more than ever, we need to make sure that all have access to Research Council funding, and that there is a champion for the social sciences. The system might not be perfect, but it's better than the alternatives. Though I have to admit, 'vive le statu quo' doesn't have quite the same ring...

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