Friday, 11 May 2018

My Big Idea by Peter Matthews aged 35-and-three-quarters


I’ve been in marking hell since the end of the period of strike action which I’ve just emerged from. I can’t read anything without correcting the grammar.

Anyway, during the strike, among all the amazing USS Strikes Tweets I saw one from the Times Higher about research that had shown that European universities spend more on getting European Research Council funding than they receive in grants awarded. This led to the usual moaning about the ridiculousness of the situation, and also the suggestion that grants should be replaced by a research basic income.

This got me thinking more about an idea I’ve had which I’ve discussed with a few people now and I now have time to tell the entire world about…
To start with, why do we have research grants? Basically they emerged (as I understand it) as there was an awareness that some research required levels of investment in people and infrastructure that were beyond the capacity of all but the largest universities. Over time, in the UK, as the other elements of state funding to universities have been reduced, they now have to account for the vast amount of research funding for universities. There are two problems (I see) with replacing grants with a fixed sum to each researcher. Firstly, is the ability to fund large-scale research particularly that which requires investment in non-staff capital resources. Secondly, it adds an odd perverse incentive for universities to just keep appointing staff even though they might struggle to cover the rest of their salary with teaching income, as you know you’ll get some money for the post.

This leaves us with a distributional problem – the pot of money to distribute for grants must always be limited. As a result complex mechanisms of measuring the quality of proposals to target funding at those which academic peers believe will be most important, have grown over time. At the same time demand for research income has grown as more researchers want to do more research; as the funding landscape for HEIs has changed; and as pressure is put on staff through HEI’s expansive strategies to bid for more funding. As a result, success rates for UK research council grants are now hovering around the 10% mark.

There are obvious massive sunk costs here. I’ve heard quite a number of people who have had “outstanding” scores across the board on research proposals which have not been funded because there’s just not enough money. The system also has massive in-built biases. At the most basic level, grants beget grants – as this recent paper shows. More problematic are the massive gender and race biases in who gets funded – what Deb Verhoeven hilariously calls the “Daversity” problem.

So, what’s my big idea? A lottery. Or actually something a bit like Premium Bonds.

How it would work is when a research-active member of staff joined a UK university you would be given a unique identifier – your research premium bond number. Every year there would be a draw for “winners”. If your number was called out you would then get £1 million to spend on research over the next few years. Within six months you would have to submit a short proposal as to what you will spend the money on. You would have to report every year on your progress and at the end of five years you would have to return any unused funds.

You could spend the money as you can spend research council grants now – employ staff, buy-out your own time, buy equipment, and share it between institutions. So, if you didn’t win, but your colleague who you had been working with on a research idea did win, you could work together using their winnings.

The advantages of a lottery for me are:

You remove most of the sunk costs in unsuccessful bids. There would be a shifting of resources to actually supporting good quality research to be developed and go ahead, and good reporting so the outcomes can be adequately captured and disseminated.

I think you would actually get a lot more innovative research funded. I imagine there’s researchers in UK HEIs who never have the time to even think about what they might do with £1 million of research money, but if they got it would probably do something really quite exciting. You would probably end up with a lovely mix of utter blue-skies, ivory-tower research and some really applied stuff from all kinds of disciplines.

It would reduce the inherent biases in a system of quality-assessed research applications. I don’t know what the research councils’ annual budget is – I’m guessing billions – divided by a million will mean enough prizes that all researchers would be equally likely to win. Also, institutions, and academic disciplines, would be equally likely to win, no matter what their level of research infrastructure.

Given the above, I reckon everyone would win at least once in their career and have a chance to do some amazing research. You might even win twice. It would be up to the random number generator.

You might say that people might just waste the money. This would be a small risk I reckon. I think the need to submit a research proposal and annual updates would negate this. Some of the current sunk costs in developing and assessing applications would have to be shifted to post-award audit. I also think if you were not a very good researcher you would also have trouble spending £1 million over five years and you would end up giving a lot of it back. Also, I don’t think you can say that our current system ensures that poor quality research doesn’t get funded – it just has well written research proposals to support it.

I think there would have to be a residual pot for the absolutely massive research projects (the big STEM infrastructure investments; humanities investments in new collections; social science longitudinal surveys etc.) and you would need a competitive funding system for that, but it would be a small part of the overall budget.

So, that’s my big idea. UKRI – hit me up.

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