Issue: 5/02

In this column over the past two years, the vagaries of the U.K. governmental approach to research funding and the problems of industry/university collaboration on research have been mentioned on several occasions. The completion and announcement of the Research Assessment Exercise results for 2001 and the publication of the government sponsored report, "Rethinking Construction Innovation and Research," by Sir John Fairclough prompt the question, can the government face both ways at once? Is it reasonable to control research support to universities while at the same time encouraging merit-based research funding as a means of offsetting the need to maintain expensive governmental research laboratories? Janus, the two-faced Roman god of gateways and new beginnings, and also the "patron saint" of intelligence agencies, would probably have appreciated the dilemma.

The Research Assessment Exercise

Firstly, an explanation of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). This is a five-year assessment cycle undertaken by the university funding councils to determine the quality of U.K. university research in all disciplines. The assessment is undertaken by teams of experts in each discipline who judge the output of a research group by its published work, its funding success and the number and strength of the postgraduate degrees awarded on the basis of research. In the 2001 exercise, 69 expert groups assessed 2,598 submissions from 173 universities and 50,000 researchers. The ratings range from 1, indicating no research activity at a national level, to 5, and 5*, indicating respectively up to half or more than half the research at international levels. In our case, the Built Environment panel considered some 40 submissions and awarded two 5*'s and six 5's--happily one to my department, thereby confirming its position as the leading Scottish built environment research department.

Okay so far, except that the next stage is the allocation of funds to each department in recognition of the quality of its output. The expert panels play no part in this element of the process. The end result was that quality has outstripped the governmental will to reward it, so that groups who have improved their grade find themselves in the position that funding levels may be no more, or even less than previously. In my department's case, the 70% increase in research active staff compared to 1996 only resulted in a 30% increase in funding due to the governmental reduction in the per capita value of a grade 5 international rating. Hence, the first face of Janus appears--despite marked improvement in research quality, the funding levels to encourage the continuation of that improvement is not being made available by government.

The Fairclough Report

In parallel with the 2001 RAE, the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions who have responsibility for the U.K. Building Regulations, but perversely not the Water Regulations, commissioned Sir John Fairclough to prepare a major report on the problems of the industry/research interface. To some extent this was prompted by concerns as to the future of built environment research following the privatization of the Building Research Establishment, BRE, the U.K. equivalent to the building-oriented functions of NIST in Washington, DC. BRE had a prestigious history of providing governmental-sponsored research, including the introduction of the single-stack building drainage and vent system in the 1960s that revolutionized the design of building drainage in the U.K. The expiry this year of support arrangements that guaranteed the continuation of governmental support to BRE over a transitional status period provides that organization with fresh challenges, including the need to compete with the centers of excellence identified through the 2001 RAE for research funding.

The conclusions of the Fairclough Report included recommendations that government investment in construction research should be safeguarded and that the importance of its contribution to the quality of life should be acknowledged. Longer term research programs involving industry and the U.K. research providers should be encouraged--contrary to the current industry preference for short-termism.

In a possibly directed conclusion, Fairclough advised against the maintenance of large research institutions, "just in case" problems arose requiring action. Instead, he recommended procuring Research and Development on merit, both on grounds of economy and as a means of encouraging centers of excellence to develop. Overall, these conclusions would seem to support placing research and research funding in Built Environment with those universities that have proved their capability to deliver at international levels of excellence through successive Research Assessment Exercises. Similarly, the strong recommendation that current levels of funding should be safeguarded was welcome.

The Fairclough Report is now out for comment, and it is unclear how it will affect the government approach to future research funding. Several levers do exist: government could differentially support centers of excellence, or it could make available more finance to the U.K. Research Councils--similar organizations to the National Science Foundation in the U.S.--to distribute as a result of research award applications.

Therefore, at first sight it would appear that the answer to my question is "Yes, Janus and government can face both ways," or perhaps, if one was of a generous turn of mind, it may be that the right and left hands of government funding policy are not fully aware of the implication of each other's actions. It will be interesting to monitor the outcome of this apparent dilemma.

Finally having just returned from an excellent skiing break in Colorado. It is worth mentioning that once again the snow was superb and the ambience excellent--always a pleasure.