Rethinking UK Research Funding: Proposals to Benefit Both Research and Researchers

On 4th November we organised an event ‘Rethinking UK Research Funding‘ hosted by The University of Manchester’s Policy Week 2015. The idea for the meeting stemmed from our longstanding interest in the structure of researcher careers – we have all been active in promoting researcher issues in The University of Manchester Research Staff Association and/or the University and College Union. We are concerned about the lack of career structures for researchers in academia and the potentially detrimental effects of excessive competition and short-termism on research integrity and the quality of research outputs (see for example this 2014 report from The Nuffield Council on Bioethics). The aim of the meeting was to assemble key stakeholders, including a group of research staff and others with an interest in research funding,, to promote discussion and lateral thinking about the way academic research is organised. Just over half of delegates (not including speakers, facilitators and the organising team) were from The University of Manchester, with others travelling from across the UK. The majority of attendees stated that they worked as researchers. Non-researcher delegates included a significant group of professionals involved in research staff development and training.

The meeting was organised into three sessions. Two morning sessions, ‘Research Reproducibility, Ethics and Outcomes‘ and ‘Creating Sustainable Researcher Careers/ Researcher Quality of Life’, and three parallel workshops in the afternoon focusing on: 1. Research Integrity: Reproducibility, Ethics and Outcomes; 2. Research Careers: Quality of Life and Sustainability; and 3. Research Funding: Improvements and Alternative Models. The speaker’s slides from the morning session are available here, and one of the delegates, Dr Eric Silverman, wrote two blogs on his site that cover the morning sessions from his perspective. This piece aims not to repeat the material available from these sources, but to summarise the major discussion themes that emerged and the suggestions from participants on what stakeholders could do to improve the academic research system for the benefit of both researchers and research.

Much of the panel discussion from the first session focussed on the influence of publishing companies on the competitive environment in academia, the vested interests of these large for-profit organisations in maintaining the status quo, and what academic researchers can do to challenge this. Points were made about the huge profits made by publishers, essentially bankrolled by taxpayers and others who fund research. This is just as much the case for most open-access journals as for those with subscription-based business models; indeed, pay-to-publish open-access can be inaccessible to less well funded researchers and universities, particularly in under-developed countries. We conclude that the research community needs to think carefully about the pressure it, in effect, puts on itself through the peer review system, to publish in high impact journals, since this system plays into the hands of corporations rather than feeding the science community. Similarly, research councils need to reflect on how metrics are gathered and what that means for where the funds they distribute are spent. This is particularly relevant in light of the mention in the Government Higher Education Green Paper (published a few days after our meeting) of “making greater use of metrics” in assessing higher education research quality. Solutions suggested at the event ranged from a publishing model along the lines of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, where profits generated by publishing are ploughed back into research, to bypassing publishers completely and publishing academic work directly on our own, or our institutions, websites, to ensure funding is used for research rather than to provide publishers with profits. We also discussed ‘registered reports’, a model where publishers accept an experimental plan (after peer review) and commit to publishing the results, regardless of what they are. This isone potential solution to publication bias and would ensure that rigorously obtained negative results are available to researchers, rather than being discarded in the back of the lab drawer labelled ‘of insufficient interest to our readers’. In the interest of balance, one contributor maintained that publishers have been the driver of innovations in how research is disseminated, and that the incentives for such innovation may be reduced in the absence of the profit motive.

We also discussed the move towards larger research groups in many academic disciplines, where relatively few grant-holders manage large groups of research staff. Contributors thought that, while this may be the optimal structure for producing data, at present, the contributions of the people doing the work are not recognised in promotion structures, which are all based on how much funding individuals are able to attract. Universities need to revisit their policies to ensure that the vital contributions of those people doing the work are appropriately recognised and rewarded.

In the second panel discussion, a number of questions touched on the elephant in the room – the numbers of people studying for PhDs and how this is affecting the academic labour market and the quality of researcher’s lives. PhD training is an export industry, where ~43% of people studying for PhDs in the UK are international students who bring huge amounts of welcome funding into the HE sector, along with the less tangible benefits of building important links between their home countries and the UK. In this respect the current ‘laissez faire’ approach to the provision of PhD training can be seen as a strength. Contributors also raised the fact that unemployment rates among PhDs are the lowest of all graduates and argued that we need to remember that a PhD is not just training for an academic career. While this argument has some merit, we should also remember that while not all PhD training aims to make people employable, a large majority of PhD students aspire to work in academia as do most people in insecure ‘research only’ jobs. Many of these people ultimately leave academic research and often leaving is not their choice. Researchers invest many years in training and striving towards the goal of a permanent academic position which only 3.5% of PhDs will achieve[1]. Discussions included the fact that some other professions (eg clinicians) control the supply of labour into their fields very effectively. Could similar workforce planning be beneficial for academic research and researchers? One participant asked whether the increase in PhD students is because they are being used as a cheap labour alternative to employing people that have already been trained. None of the expert panel believed this to be an intentional strategy; nevertheless, it is clear that the oversupply and precarious employment of researchers is having an impact.

Another topic discussed was the ‘teeth’ available to the Athena SWAN awards system and the ‘Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers’ (“an agreement between UK funders and employers of research staff to improve the employment and support for researchers and research careers in UK higher education”) were discussed. The popularity and effectiveness of the Athena SWAN awards system is in part due to the intervention of Dame Sally Davis, the Government’s Chief Medical Officer, who explicitly linked the scheme to funding decisions. Also, it is possible for Athena SWAN awards to be withdrawn if awardees do not maintain standards. While the Concordat contains many positive recommendations which could improve the situation for researchers (for example, by increasing continuity of employment), it is not directly linked to funding decisions. It was argued that the aim of the Concordat is to change culture and that mandatory requirements can lead to ‘tick-box’ responses; however, research councils do expect principles to be upheld and the European Commission’s “HR Excellence in Research Award” does look at the implementation of the Concordat and can be withdrawn if standards are not met.

The afternoon workshops were lively and the topics discussed wide-ranging. A number of concrete suggestions for actions for stakeholders in academic research were developed. In particular, to really make a difference to researcher careers, research funders should make training and development of research staff a mandatory condition for the receipt of research funding and allow non-permanent research staff to develop their independence by allowing them to be Principal Investigators on project grant applications. Funders should also look to develop more flexible funding models that recognise the complexities of people’s lives and do not impose arbitrary cut-off points that exclude sections of the research community in a way that discriminates on criteria other than research excellence. Employers should seriously consider managing their research differently by, for example, using a consultancy model to break the link between research funding and researcher contracts to manage their existing research staff more proactively and humanely. University leaders also need to make sure that the contributions of their researchers are properly recognised and rewarded, and engage with staff representatives in collective bargaining to ensure that this is done in a meaningful way. Research staff themselves take the bulk of the risk associated with current funding models. They must be proactive in managing their careers and should also endeavour to engage with representative organisations, such as trade unions and research staff associations.

None of the issues that prompted us to organise this meeting are new and the suggestions for improvements that emerged are common sense ideas, many of which have been mooted previously in one form or another. The challenge we face is in convincing people in positions to make a difference that it will be in their interests to do so. It is no secret that job insecurity blights the lives of many academic researchers. But the evidence is growing that the same competitive culture that chews up and spits out so many PhD graduates is also mangling research outputs, affecting the quality of the results that tax-payers and charity donors fund. We cannot afford to allow this to continue. If research can no longer be trusted, who will want to fund it? It is time to rethink research funding, in the UK and beyond.

Pamela Thompson, Erin Baggaley, Kassandra Papadopoulou, Karin Lanthaler, Sarah King-Hele and Hosam Aleem

https://rethinkingukresearch.wordpress.com/         @RethinkingUK

[1] “The Scientific Century securing our future prosperity”, The Royal Society, 2010.

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