For a while I have been thinking that many of the issues facing the Australian higher education research sector – funding shortfalls, obsession with journal articles and associated article- and author-level metrics, disconnect with the public sphere and low collaboration with the private sector, among others – are compounded by the ‘dual funding’ model.

Government support for research comes in two forms – about half from peer reviewed grants (such as from ARC and NHMRC) and half from research block grants. However, as I have outlined elsewhere, the research block grants are driven 55% by the outcomes of the peer reviewed grants, ostensibly with the logic of offsetting the indirect costs associated with those grants. Meanwhile, income from public and private sector partners barely rates a mention in the allocation formula. This is not the case in many research intensive economies as outlined in Figure 1 .

 

Figure 1 Government funding of R&D in higher education by funding type, 2010 (from OECD Science, Technology and Industry Scorecard 2013)

increasing impact in science figure 2

 

But why does this matter? Well, firstly, it focuses the entire university research endeavour on 3-4 year project cycles, which is not conducive to breakthrough research which often requires long time frames and serendipity. It also minimises universities’ ability to back winners and undertake long term strategic planning of their research agendas, instead preparing for round after round of grant applications.

But, more importantly it forces academics to focus on grant-getting. And grant-getting is predicated on journal article writing to boost ‘track records’. And journal article writing is based on peer review which is based on ‘hermetically-sealed idiom’ with a good dose of gate-keeping. In other words, the funding model rewards academics for turning inward.

It may be argued using market logic that these competitive mechanisms will determine the correct outcomes, but as competitive market-based mechanisms, both individual grants and the block grants are less than competitive: both are predicated on the status quo, block grants through the many inbuilt safety nets, and ARC/NHMRC grants because they are geared towards previous winners who have used ARC/NHMRC grants to increase their track records to make themselves more competitive for further grants ad infinitum.

While grant-getting is the only game in town (both as an end in itself and as the driver of block grant funding) this cycle will perpetuate. I believe that a rebalance of funding that provides greater recognition for income derived from the public and private sectors, and at the same time delivers a larger proportion of funding through (reworked) block grants would go a long way to democratising university research.

Given the potential pool of funding available from the private and public sectors is virtually uncapped there may be additional benefits to this approach, such as addressing the funding crisis for university teaching – research done for and with private and public sector partners tends to get closer to fully funded (i.e. includes on-costs) a greater focus on this may diminish the need to cross-subsidise research from teaching budgets.

It will be interesting to see if any of this comes out in the Watt review

This post is part 2 of an ongoing series on re-imagining a more democratic public university system. Part 1 can be viewed here.