The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) has today announced the weighting for ‘impact’ for the Research Excellence Framework (REF) in 2014.  It will be 20% with the expectation that it will increase in future exercises.  Sounds like a sound and balanced decision given the history of the debate but also the learning from the pilot exercises last year.  You’ll remember that the original proposal was for 25%.

Last week HEFCE also announced the members of the various panels for the REF.

The Science Minister, David Willetts MP, has been speaking today at University UK’s Spring Conference (have UUK actually seen the weather out there?).

The full text of his speech is available from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills website but I was very pleased to see this section in it: 

‘There’s another issue too. We are looking within BIS – in light of changes to undergraduate funding and finance at how we support postgraduate study in future. We have a successful postgraduate sector that has grown substantially over recent years and has done so with comparatively little Government funding or regulation. Many people have raised concerns about the impact that higher graduate contributions could have on participation in postgraduate study – and it would be clearly detrimental to this country if we saw a big fall in postgraduate numbers.

So I have asked Professor Sir Adrian Smith – who, as you know, produced a comprehensive report on postgraduate study in March of last year – to reconvene his review panel and consider this issue in light of the new funding environment.

On research funding, HEFCE has a four-year allocation and should announce institutional allocations for the 2011/12 QR Grant, indicative allocations for HEIF, and teaching allocations on March 16th. Together with other funding bodies, HEFCE will also announce shortly the way forward on the Research Excellence Framework and impact assessment.’

The impact on postgraduate education of changes in the higher education funding is one of the issues that has been raised with me most by AMRC member charities.  Not surprising really when you consider, as an example, the number of new and ongoing postgraduate studentships (approx 700) being funded by them as we speak – they are an important way of bringing new scientists on as well as fostering and supporting important research activity.

As I’m sure you will be aware from the main news headlines about this speech, David Willetts, has announced a delay of the higher education white paper originally slated to be published in March.  This is so the Government can take into account the tuition fees that universities are likely to charge.


Reacting to today’s announcement of funding allocations for Higher Education Institutions by the Higher Education Funding Council For England (HEFCE) Lord Willis, Chair of the Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC), said:

 “These are uncertain times for science and research with a tightening spending budget and considerable pressures on universities and a difficult business environment. Today’s announced reductions to research funding and capital spend in universities naturally raise concerns over the impact across science.  It emphasises the need for Government to work with all partners to support world-class science in the UK.

 “Last year AMRC’s 125 members spent £1.1 billion on medical and health research in the UK, over a third of all public expenditure, with 80% of this funding going to universities. 

 “However, we welcome the news that HEFCE has protected and maintained the Charity Research Support Fund (CRSF).  Our evidence is that charities are working in an increasingly difficult fundraising environment with cuts in public expenditure adding to the pressures on them. HEFCE’s announcement represents an important incentive to maintaining their investment in research going forward.  AMRC members look forward to continuing their valuable partnership with government as we find a way forward over the coming years.”

 Notes to Editors

 The Charity Research Support Fund (CRSF) is the funding stream through which government partners charities to support the full costs of research in universities.

The Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC) is a membership organisation of the leading medical and health research charities in the UK. Working with our member charities and partners, we aim to support the sector’s effectiveness and advance medical research by developing best practice, providing information and guidance, improving public dialogue about research and science, and influencing government.

Formally established in 1987, AMRC now has 125 member charities that contributed over £1 billion in 2009-10 to research in the UK, aimed at tackling diseases such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes, as well as rarer conditions like cystic fibrosis and motor neurone disease. Medical research charities contribute approximately one third of all public expenditure on medical and health research in the UK. www.amrc.org.uk

For further analysis please view our policy blog at: http://amrcpolicyblog.wordpress.com/

If you are looking for the detail of today’s announcement by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) on the science budget allocations for the spending review period then please look at the excellent summary by our policy and public affairs manager, Becky Purvis, here.

Further perspective from me in due course.  But, given Breast Cancer Campaign’s letter on CRSF last week and our ongoing campaign on this issue, I am very pleased about the Government’s guideline to HEFCE that they allocate research funding to universities with the aim of protecting funding from external sources including that from medical research charities.  We’ll know more in the New Year.

The term ‘partnership’ is now scattered liberally through the narrative we all use for the way in which we work – either as organisations or as individuals.  The highly inventive among us occasionally substitute it with  ‘collaboration’ or even the more arcane ‘working together,’ but partnership is in the ascendant in every sense.

But I am beginning to feel we are in danger of devaluing real partnership by its increasing use without design or definition and particularly when it is not followed up by matching deeds or behaviours.

I’m no expert on partnership but it seems to me that its success rests on several things: a shared goal; mutual humility and respect and; a clear definition of roles and expectations.  But, above all, it also requires openness and transparency on all sides and a willingness to be flexible.

I was only struck by this because in recent weeks a number of our members have run into problems with the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) and its approach to awarding partnership status to research funders.  Those whose grants attain partnership status are eligible for NHS support costs.  Those that don’t, won’t be.  No one opposes the idea or the principles behind this policy.  But the process by which NIHR decides who is successful leaves much to be desired.

That process is opaque, long-winded and resource sapping for applicants, seems bureuacratically heavy-handed and ultimately contrary to the partnership ethos it is trying to cement within NHS research.   What is particularly galling for some charities is to learn that their approach to open competition in awarding research grants – one of the three criteria being used by NIHR to make its judgements – is being contested even though it fully meets both AMRC’s widely-accepted standards and the criteria of other bodies like the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE).   Those charities whose practices are being challenged are given little if any explanation of why and there seems no formal process for appeal.  I can sense rising frustration among medical research charities and I can understand why.

My sense is that this saga has a few chapters to run yet and AMRC will be meeting with NIHR over the summer.  But it is perhaps symptomatic of the over-regulated world of research that we are putting bureaucracy over judgement.  More importantly, if we are not careful, we are in danger of undermining some valuable partnerships between research funders and the NHS – and for patient benefit I might hasten to add.

Finally, on a more positive note, our members have long been important voices in raising awareness and understanding of the importance of animal research to the development of new treatments and therapies for patients.  So I wanted to finish with a link to an item that appeared this week on the BBC One Show featuring Rebecca Wood, chief executive of the Alzheimer’s Research Trust, talking about charity funded animal use on medical research:  http://bbc.co.uk/i/lz9fk/

Now that’s openness for you.