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Challenge related funding?

13 Apr 2018

Naomi Weir takes a look at the QR funding announcement from Research England

This week has felt very ‘2015’ as I’ve had conversations about preparing for Spending Reviews and begun work on a new investment project that CaSE will be working on this year delving into R&D funding figures. And in particular today marked the return of the phrase I’d hoped had been assigned to the 2015 archive, ‘flat cash’. 

I’m being over-dramatic of course. We’ve seen significant R&D investment from Government announced since 2015, but that means that today’s announcement on an uplift to Quality Related (QR) funding gives pause for thought…it’s an uplift, but not as we know it.

The Spending Review in 2015 marked the change from flat-cash science budgets with the arrival of the Global Challenges Research Fund. This was funding for research from the DfID budget directed through the research councils for research that meets Official Development Assistance criteria. We are in very different times now, for a whole range of reasons, but the GCRF continues to form part of the, now, UKRI budget. In 2015 I wrote,

“How the £1.5bn Global Challenges Research fund is allocated will be a major factor in determining whether the additional ODA funding increases the capacity of research council funding, or ends up top slicing their budgets and squeezing funding in other areas. These are important questions that will determine quite how rosy the settlement is for science, but currently are without answers.”

Today’s Research England announcement gives us a little bit more information about how the GCRF is being spent, with a line within its Quality Related (QR) research funding coming from that pot and therefore needing to fund research that is ODA compliant. It’s ‘QR’ funding by name, but very different from the mainstream QR that makes up the bulk of the pot which is allocated on a formula basis based on institutional performance in the Research Excellence Framework. It has many more strings attached.

There is more in the Research England announcement than QR that we’ll look into as part of a wider project on R&D investment we’ll be undertaking this year. However, due to significant increases in challenge-led and directed funding, there is a lot of interest by the research base in the future of QR. Part of the answer is given in the announcement today and I’m not sure if we’re going in the right direction with mainstream QR stalling (I haven’t used the phrase flat-cash for a while, but its back!) in cash terms. (There is a little wrinkle in the figures that we’ll look into, where the amount announced today (£1050m) is different to the figure for the same year announced last year (£1098m)).

A break-down of the QR announcement today is in the table below and from the columns on the right you’ll see this is not ‘new research funding’ but rather is clarification of how previously announced funding pots from 2015 and 2016 will be allocated for the academic year 2018-19.

Recurrent funding for research (£m)17-1818-19£ changeApril 18 RE grant letter 
Recurrent research (including GCRF)1,6201,66545  
of which funding for national facilities and initiatives14239April 18 RE grant letter 
of which mainstream quality-related research (QR), together with its London weighting element and excluding GCRF1,0501,0500April 18 RE grant letter18-19 Grant letter says it is maintained in cash terms in 2018-19 at a total of £1,050 m. However, Hefce website lists mainstream QR with london weighting as £1,098 for 17-18. 
of which GCRF485810Spending Review 2015Original GCRF funding envelope up to 20/21 announced in SR15
of which QR research degree programme (RDP) supervision funding24026020Spring Budget 2017£90m over 4 years for an additional 1000 PhD places as part of National Productivity Investment Fund (NPIF)
of which CSRF1982046April 18 RE grant letterNew announcement, likely from previously announced NPIF funding
of which QR business research64640  
of which national libraries770  
Recurrent knowledge exchange18521025Industrial Strategy 2016Increasing HEIF to reach £250 million a year by 2020-21
Total non-capital grants1,8051,87570  

Commenting on the announcement, CaSE Executive Director Dr Sarah Main said:

“This funding [mainstream QR] is the engine of discovery and innovation at universities. It allows ideas to germinate, to succeed and to fail, producing the winners that are taken on for further development. At a time when the Government is investing heavily in the industrial strategy, it is disappointing that it has not taken this opportunity to increase support for the research that drives discovery. 

The Research Excellence Framework, on which the funding is allocated, is a robust, competitive and closely scrutinised exercise which incentivises universities to use QR funds highly effectively. This should give Government every confidence in investing in it further.

The UK research system offers modes of funding that support challenge-led to discovery research. Setting researchers’ sights on societal challenges is important, but it is not a mode that can be used to support the whole research base. So, alongside challenges, it will be important to ensure that the QR mode of funding discovery research keeps pace, so that the bounds of discovery are set wide and the flow of new ideas emerging can drive innovation and progress.”