Scottish Funding Council Research Excellence Grant and Research Postgraduate Grant
The Royal Society of Edinburgh has responded to the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) consultation on the operation of the Research Excellent Grant (REG) and Research Postgraduate Grant (RPG). The consultation is being undertaken against a backdrop of a delay to the publication of the results of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2021 Assessment which are expected to be available in May 2022. There is a potential for significant unintended consequences if the SFC has to incorporate at very short notice the REF results into funding models for universities for academic year 2022-23. It would mean that universities will have very little opportunity to consider and plan for how changes to REG will impact on their budgets ahead of the new academic year. Delaying the implementation of REF 2021 results and changes to REG until AY 2023-24 is both persuasive and sensible.
The UK dual support system for research funding means that it is crucially important that Scotland remains aligned with UK-wide research developments to maintain and, where possible, increase Scottish HEIs’ research competitiveness at the UK level. A key purpose of the REG is to ensure Scottish universities are well placed to win competitive Research Council funding. However, investment in REG has failed to keep pace with inflation and with UK Research Council funding. Scotland’s success in winning competitive UK-level research funding has reduced from over 15.7% in 2013-14 to less than 13% in 2019-20. The Scottish Budget for 2022-23 means that Scottish universities continue to face a real-terms reduction in funding for teaching and research. It remains to be seen how the SFC can help provide the funding sustainability for research given the continuing real-terms decline in university funding.
The principles outlined for REG should be extended to reflect the broader institutional and cultural aspects of research excellence. They need to explicitly cover research impact, and the infrastructure, environment, practice and culture within which research is undertaken.
The current quality weightings for 3* and 4* research in Scotland appear to be appropriate in the context of the current distribution of funding. Even very small adjustments to the weightings are likely to produce significant shifts in how REG is distributed between HEIs given the sensitivity of the REG formula. Any prospective change to the weightings therefore needs to be carefully considered and modelled by the SFC at both the system level and at the level of individual institutions in order to generate a fuller understanding of the impact of any potential changes.
There is merit in considering an increase to the proportion of funding allocated to RPG given the importance of developing future generations of researchers which are necessary for the sustainability of Scotland’s research base. This would, however, require careful consideration, particularly if any increase in RPG is likely to result in a corresponding reduction to REG given the lack of additional funding available.
The RSE supports the SFC proposal to introduce greater accountability for RPG so that HEIs are required to demonstrate how the RPG they receive is being used to support the postgraduate research environment and culture. As well as generating a better understanding of how RPG is being used, this would enable HEIs to share good practice.
Research students need to be supported so that they are able to engage in research widely with Scottish society, beyond academia and industry, including policy makers, civil society, NGOs and charities, among others. Such an approach could help open up a wider range of research careers as well as increasing the ways in which research can inform and stimulate activity in diverse sectors and areas in Scotland.