What would happen if we didn’t fund University research?
Could this post do me out of a job? I worry about the value of what I, and many of my colleagues, do. I have benefited from a long tax-payer funded education, and am now a well paid academic (certainly compared to teachers, for example, who have a much tougher job than I do). I teach (which I care about) and do research, or at least try and acquire money for my lab minions to do research, and do a bit of admin on the side. If you are a prospective undergraduate, it should suffice to say that I enjoy teaching, put effort into it, and try and will try my best to help you understand new material and develop your subject knowledge and new skills. You might also think it’s cool that I dabble with lasers as a sideline to the teaching role you see me the most in. For the general public, I also think that ‘lecturer’ is associated mostly with teaching, and the occasional news item reminds them that we do other stuff as well. Equally though, those news items might just as well be about people carrying out research in the States, in Germany, in China, in anywhere else but here.
The argument for investing in British science and engineering is that it helps to develop economic output, that some of the weird stuff that we do bleeds into making money for the country at some point. What if we didn’t invest though, or at least didn’t fund research through Universities? What if we took the billions of pounds that we pay out for research through University grants, University direct research funding and staff salaries and funneled it through directly funded industrial research programs and a few select basic research (only) centres, with perhaps greater critical mass than at present? We could then leave Universities to get on with teaching.
In this model, advanced training such as PhDs would be carried out in industry. Blue Skies projects would be allowed, and block funding could be used to establish permanent positions – think of something like the old BT labs, but funded by the tax payer. One of my current postdocs is about to leave my group to join a small start-up – there is private equity money for this, but why couldn’t the company get an independent grant to pay for him to do research, if that is what they wanted? Why can this only happen fully in academia? If the emphasis is for impact beyond an invited to talk to a few hundred of our friends, why not fund it directly?
Clearly there are lots of issues with this, associated with the commercial nature of how such money was used and the more fragile nature of companies in the private sector. Maybe it would promote inward investment though? Also the argument for doing stuff for its own sake to see where it takes us is strong among academia, but a serious question is: would we, the public, notice any real difference?
I debate this with myself quite a lot – if all the research currently funded in the UK University sector was to disappear tomorrow, would we really notice? If discovery X was made in France, would it change how I view the world? Would it make any huge difference to the public services I receive? I’ve yet to see a really convincing argument of the direct correlation between the output of Universities in terms of their research and direct economic benefit.
Obviously what we do is not simply for economics (there is the pleasure of finding things out), but is the way we approach science and engineering in the UK really the optimal way to strike a balance in generating new knowledge, providing UK plc with some new stuff to play with, and teaching new generations of scientists and engineers about how stuff works?