Balance in Dual Funding for Research

Earlier this week I attended a roundtable discussion of the recent report produced by the UK Innovation Research Centre on the dual funding system. The report is full of detailed material, and is pretty dense reading, so it was really helpful to hear the lead author, Professor Alan Hughes, summarise the key findings. The central conclusion is that UK university researchers are active in generating benefits from their research in a wide range of ways, and, most importantly, there is no evidence of a trade-off between research excellence and achievement of impact. It's an 'and' not an 'or'. The study also demonstrates the extent to which both streams of the dual funding system contribute to excellence and impact.

There was also an interesting conversation as part of the discussion on the balance between the two parts of the dual funding system, block grants and project funding. Is the balance right, and would even better outcomes be achieved with a different balance? Hughes pointed out that this study doesn't provide evidence to inform this question. And it leads me to wonder what evidence could ever inform this debate. The report does demonstrate that the balance between the two funding streams has been quite stable over recent history, so there is no opportunity to compare performance under different regimes. Given that UK research performance is high, it would be risky to perturb the system very much. If there were a resultant drop in performance it might take many years to become apparent, by which time adverse changes could be irreversible.

Without evidence to support change, or a realistic way of gathering evidence, the focus should be on preserving the well-functioning system that the report characterises. It is much more important to make sure that the total investment in research is protected in real terms, rather than trying to optimise a balance that may well be optimal already.