Last week UWE held one of its bi-annual Researchers’ Forums. This is an event that we have been running for a few years now with the intention of sharing information with and seeking feedback from research staff in the university about issues and/or initiatives that affect what they do. At the last forum in September of last year, we had a very interesting day facilitated by Kate Tapper (Bud Development) that saw both researchers and their managers/principal investigators in the same room at the same time (anyone in the field of researcher development will know this is not easy to achieve!) discussing how best to support the career development of researchers. Probably the most important thing that came out of that day was that researchers wanted their managers and/or leaders to give all the facts about the environment in which they work.
When it came to putting together the programme for the Researchers’ forum this time around, it was decided to honour that request so the senior management in research were asked to come and explain where the money for research comes from and, more importantly, how was it spread around the various activities that UWE undertakes.
Thinking back to when I was a research student and then subsequently a post doctoral researcher, I had no real clue as to how the funding of research really worked, I had some idea but was never really sure of how it was decided who gets what. All I could be sure of from my perspective was that one had to put a lot of effort into writing many applications for funding and seeing very few of them being rewarded as successful. As the years have rolled on and I’ve been immersed in the wider world surrounding research, I’ve a much clearer idea of how it works yet it is still fairly complicated.
I was cheered then when I came across a guide published by the Research Information Network (RIN) that sets out the how the funding of research works on a national level making it that little bit easier to “Show me the money”.
This source for this file is here
The majority of funding for research comes via two routes from Government which is why it is called the “Dual Support” system.
On one side, the Treasury hands over a sum of money to the Government department Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) which is then distributed to the UK Research Councils (there are seven of these that cover the broad discipline base). Universities then make applications to the Research Councils for a number of different schemes.
On the other side, again the Government hand over money to the national funding councils (HEFCE, HEFCW & SFC) which distribute money to universities based on what is called a Quality Related (QR) funding allocation. This is decided by a peer review assessment on a range of subject areas that takes place every 6 years or so. The next exercise is two years away and is called the Research Excellence Framework (REF).
There are a few other avenues of research funding for example, charities and other government departments that support fairly specific areas of endeavour as well as the private sector who, usually, have a vested interest in the outcomes of the research. Increasingly important is the research funding that is available from the EU.
Why does any of this matter? The distribution of research funding has become something of a game, rather like playing in the football league where the top premiership teams have access to a disproportionate amount of the funding available where as the lower league teams have to work hard at ‘staying up’ and much of the success to be had depends on team tactics.
The best advice that I can give to aspiring researchers is to learn a little bit more about the rules of the game and how to play them to your advantage.
I'm a former researcher into the microbiology of the mouth who now runs a skills development programme for other researchers.