value for money in research – excellence or diversity

Government research funding policy in many countries, including the UK, has focused on centres of excellence, putting more funding into a few institutions and research groups who are creating the most valuable outputs.

Is this the best policy, and does evidence support it?

From “Big Science vs. Little Science: How Scientific Impact Scales with Funding”

I’m prompted to write as Leonel Morgado (Facebook, web) shared a link to a 2013 PLOS ONE paper “Big Science vs. Little Science: How Scientific Impact Scales with Funding” by Jean-Michel Fortin and David Currie.  The paper analyses work funded by Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), and looked at size of grant vs. research outcomes.  The paper demonstrates diminishing returns: large grants produce more research outcomes than smaller grants, but less per dollar spend.  That is concentrating research funding appears to reduce the overall research output.

Of course, those obtaining research grants have all been through a highly competitive process, so the NSERC results may simply be a factor of the fact that we are already looking at the very top level of the research projects.

However, a report many years ago reinforces this story, and suggests it holds more broadly.

Sometime in the mid-late 1990s HEFCE the UK higher education funding agency, did a study where they ranked all universities against every simple research output metrics1. One of the outputs was the number of PhD completions and another was industrial research income (arguably whether an output!), but I forget the third.

Not surprisingly Oxford and Cambridge came top of the list when ranked by aggregate research output.

However, the speadsheet also included the amount of research money HEFCE paid into the university and a value-for-money column.

When ranked against value-for-money, the table was near reversed, with Oxford and Cambridge at the very bottom and Northampton University (not typically known as the peak of the university excellence ratings) was the top. That is HEFCE got more research output for pound spent at Northampton than anywhere else in the UK.

The UK REF2014 used an extensive and time-consuming peer-review mechanism to rank the research quality of each discipline in each UK university-level institution, on a 1* to 4* scale (4* being best). Funding is heavily ramped towards 4* (in England the weighting is 10:3:0:0 for 4*:3*:2*:1*). As part of the process, comprehensive funding information was produced for each unit of assessment (typically a department), including UK government income, European projects, charity and industrial funding.

So, we have an officially accepted assessment of research outcomes (that is government funds against it!), and also of the income that generated it.

At a public meeting following the 2014 exercise, I asked a senior person at HEFCE whether they planned to take the two and create a value for money metric, for example, the cost per 4* output.

There was a distinct lack of enthusiasm for the idea!

Furthermore, my analysis of REF measures vs citation metrics suggested that this very focused official funding model was further concentrated by an almost unbelievably extreme bias towards elite institutions in the grading: apparently equal work in terms of external metrics was ranked nearly an order of magnitude higher for ‘better’ institutions, leading to funding being around 2.5 times higher for some elite universities than objective measures would suggest.


From “REF Redux 4 – institutional effects“: ‘winners’ are those with 25% or more than metrics would estimate, ‘losers’ those with 25% or more less.

In summary, the implications both from Fortin and Currie’s PLOS ONE paper and from the 1990s HEFCE report suggest spreading funding more widely would increase overall research outcomes, but both official policy and implicit review bias do the opposite.

  1. I recall reading this, but it was before the days when I rolled everything over on my computer, so can’t find the exact reference. If anyone recalls the name of the report, or has a copy, I would be very grateful.[back]

Students love digital … don’t they?

In the ever accelerating rush to digital delivery, is this actually what students want or need?

Last week I was at Talis Insight conference. As with previous years, this is a mix of sessions focused on those using or thinking of using Talis products, with lots of rich experience talks. However, also about half of the time is dedicated to plenaries about the current state and future prospects for technology in higher education; so well worth attending (it is free!) whether or not you are a Talis user.

Speakers this year included Bill Rammell, now Vice-Chancellor at the University of Bedfordshire, but who was also Minister of State for Higher Education during the second Blair government, and during that time responsible for introducing the National Student Survey.

Another high profile speaker was Rosie Jones, who is Director of Library Services at the Open University … which operates somewhat differently from the standard university library!

However, among the VCs, CEOs and directors of this and that, it was the two most junior speakers who stood out for me. Eva Brittin-Snell and Alex Davie are to SAGE student scholars from Sussex. As SAGE scholars they have engaged in research on student experience amongst their peers, speak at events like this and maintain a student blog, which includes, amongst other things the story of how Eva came to buy her first textbook.

Eva and Alex’s talk was entitled “Digital through a student’s eyes” (video). Many of the talks had been about the rise of digital services and especially the eTextbook. Eva and Alex were the ‘digital natives’, so surely this was joy to their ears. Surprisingly not.

Alex, in her first year at university, started by alluding to the previous speakers, the push for book-less libraries, and general digital spiritus mundi, but offered an alternative view. Students were annoyed at being asked to buy books for a course where only a chapter or two would be relevant; they appreciated the convenience of an eBook, when core textbooks were permanently out on and, and instantly recalled once one got hold of them. However, she said they still preferred physical books, as they are far more usable (even if heavy!) than eBooks.

Eva, a fourth year student, offered a different view. “I started like Aly”, she said, and then went on to describe her change of heart. However, it was not a revelation of the pedagogical potential of digital, more that she had learnt to live through the pain. There were clear practical and logistic advantages to eBooks, there when and where you wanted, but she described a life of constant headaches from reading on-screen.

Possibly some of this is due to the current poor state of eBooks that are still mostly simply electronic versions of texts designed for paper. Also, one of their student surveys showed that very few students had eBook readers such as Kindle (evidently now definitely not cool), and used phones primarily for messaging and WhatsApp. The centre of the student’s academic life was definitely the laptop, so eBooks meant hours staring at a laptop screen.

However, it also reflects a growing body of work showing the pedagogic advantages of physical note taking, potential developmental damage of early tablet and smartphone use, and industry figures showing that across all areas eBook sales are dropping and physical book sales increasing. In addition there is evidence that children and teenagers people prefer physical books, and public library use by young people is growing.

It was also interesting that both Alex and Eva complained that eTextbooks were not ‘snappy’ enough. In the age of Tweet-stream presidents and 5-minute attention spans, ‘snappy’ was clearly the students’ term of choice to describe their expectation of digital media. Yet this did not represent a loss of their attention per se, as this was clearly not perceived as a problem with physical books.

… and I am still trying to imagine what a critical study of Aristotle’s Poetics would look like in ‘snappy’ form.

There are two lessons from this for me. First what would a ‘digital first’ textbook look like. Does it have to be ‘snappy’, or are there ways to maintain attention and depth of reading in digital texts?

The second picks up on issues in the co-authored paper I presented at NordiChi last year, “From intertextuality to transphysicality: The changing nature of the book, reader and writer“, which, amongst other things, asked how we might use digital means to augment the physical reading process, offering some of the strengths of eBooks such as the ability to share annotations, but retaining a physical reading experience.  Also maybe some of the physical limitations of availability could be relieved, for example, if university libraries work with bookshops to have student buy and return schemes alongside borrowing?

It would certainly be good if students did not have to learn to live with pain.

We have a challenge.