by GK Strategy 8th November, 2016
3 min read

The Future of UK Research Funding

The UK became the first country to undertake an assessment of the quality of research undertaken in universities thirty years ago through the initiation of the Research Excellence Framework (REF). The aim of the REF, last undertaken in 2014, is to prioritise funding to those institutions who demonstrate the biggest impact and highest quality.

Funding is then administered under a ‘dual support’ system. Under this system each funding body (HEFCE, SFC, HEFCW and DELNI) provides annual funding for HEIs in the form of a ‘block grant’, and the UK Research Councils provide funding for specific research projects and programmes. In 2016-17 HEFCE will distribute £1.6 billion quality-related research funding. This funding is significant to HEIs as it aids them in investing and maintaining research capabilities. Each HEI decides how to optimise their research funding, to sustain researchers between project grants and to develop a cohesive strategy for responding to new areas of research.

REF’s key function is to inform strategic decisions surrounding national priorities such as science, engineering, and medicine. Central to this remains the need to increase international competitiveness of the UK research sector and for the country to remain a world leader in research and innovation. However, the Post- Brexit uncertainty and long-term funding issues has created a significant level of anxiety amongst UK HEIs.

This anxiety is not only limited to projects within universities but also collaborative projects amongst countries in the EU. Approximately £1 billion per year comes from Horizon 2020, the EU’s current framework programme for research. Recently, the UK’s Russell Group universities survey revealed that some British academics had been asked to leave EU funded projects or to step down from leadership roles as they were being considered as a financial liability. Regardless of how widespread this activity is, even a small amount of uncertainty threatens to damage international research links which are so vital to UK plc.

Individual academics across the country that have been working on certain projects for over a decade, are understandably keen to secure UK government for assurances for future research funding and many are already exploring alternative routes to funding their research.

Although Philip Hammond, the UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, has reassured the sector through his promise to underwrite EU research projects and the government has guaranteed support for Horizon 2020, there remain a lot of unanswered questions regarding the longer-term funding issues. The Chancellor has pledged to guarantee EU-funding for research projects before this year’s Autumn Statement, which is only two weeks away. No doubt the sector will be eagerly awaiting dedicated commitments to research and innovation in his upcoming speech.

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