Do more with less?

Research funding in the UK is threatened by major cuts, and we are told to “Do more with less.” (This comes from Vince Cable, the UK’s Business Secretary, via the BBC.)[NB 21 Nov 2011: The threatened major cuts turned into a smaller cut.  Research funding will stay stable overall, in terms of pounds without any increase to compensate for inflation.  However, the government seems to have a plan to pick research topics of importance, deciding on the value of research before the proposals are even written.  As I argue elsewhere, this is a triumph of hope over reality.]

That’s easy to say.  Unfortunately, the facts don’t suggest that there are efficiency gains to be made.

  • Should we cut out waste?  How?    Our research expense is mostly salary, and we already pay people relatively little and work them hard.
    • Can you buy a house on a professor’s salary?   Just barely, but a professor’s salary is twice what most researchers earn.
    • Can you take a holiday in research?   Sure, but the work doesn’t go away: you’ll just have to work harder when you get back.
  • Should we eliminate unproductive researchers?   We do already.  Nearly all researchers are contract employees.  You don’t have to fire them if they don’t produce, you just wait for their contract to expire.  And to get a new contract, they need to compete against the best and brightest in the UK.  If I fall off my bicycle and break my arm, there is effectively no disability insurance: if I cannot write, I’m gone when my contract expires.
  • Should we work smarter?   How?   All research is planned in advance and approved by the experts in the field.
  • Should we be more free-market?   How?  Researchers already bid against each other to do the most interesting/valuable research for the lowest price.  That’s the essence of a research proposal.   And, the Research Councils only have the money to fund a fraction, so they fund the ones that seem best.
  • Should we work closer to industry?  How?  No one really knows how to predict the impact of research, especially before it is begun.
  • Should we make better commercial use of the research we do?   That started a decade ago.  These days, Unversities are always looking for research they can commercialise.
  • Should we ask non-governmental partners to buy-in?   We do already: the government-funded research councils pick up only 80% of the cost of research.  When I write a proposal, the University has to agree to pay 20% of my salary.  They do this because they believe new knowledge is important, and because they know that it is tied to their reputation and their teaching quality.

So, research funding is not doled out blindly.   Proposals go through a peer review process, and less than 1/3 of them are funded.  The research enterprise in the UK may well be the most competitive, most free-market part of the economy.  There are no free rides in research; there is nothing like tenure.  The adjective “Darwinian” sometimes comes to mind, especially when I’m competing for my next year’s salary.

So, no, you won’t get more with less.   It’ll be less with less.