Food for thought……

Article written by Colin MacIlwain for Research Professional, 29/06/2011.

Scotland’s research pools face uncertain future

Concern is mounting at universities in Scotland that support for the country’s research pools will fade away—ending an experiment in cross-university cooperation that has drawn international admiration and imitation.

The research pools foster close collaboration in research and postgraduate teaching between university departments in subjects ranging from physics and engineering to economics and Gaelic. They are frequently cited by Scottish ministers and university vice-chancellors as a central plank in the country’s research policy.

In particular, they have been credited with helping to maintain Scotland’s disproportionate share of funding from the UK research councils.

However, the pools were each built on large, multi-year grants from the Scottish Funding Council, on top of contributions from the participating universities for additional academic positions and laboratory equipment.

Last week in Glasgow, participants in the largest pool, the £75-million Scottish Universities Life Sciences Alliance, said they would not apply for a renewal when the existing eight-year grant ends in 2015. Some of the other pools’ initial grant periods end this year and next.

In common with other Scottish-government-sponsored agencies, the SFC has no budget framework beyond 2012. When it gets one in the autumn, the council will probably seek to maintain its block funding for university research despite overall cuts. This will put funding for other initiatives, including the pools, under extreme pressure.

“When the pools were launched, each of the institutions participating agreed that the pools would be sustainable from alternative resources beyond the initial funding period,” said Mark Batho, chief executive of the Scottish Funding Council, in a statement.

However the first pool, the Scottish Universities Physics Alliance, was given a second tranche of funding, and officials at some of the others had been holding out hope for a repeat performance. SFC officials say there are no plans for such renewals, but refuse to rule out some form of transitional support when the initial grants expire.

Pete Downes, vice-principal of the University of Dundee and chairman of the research committee at Universities Scotland, said that it would co-ordinate a review on the future of the pools later this year.

“They were not meant to be continuously funded, and I’m not critical of the fact that existing pools will probably not receive an extension of cash support,” he said. “The question is whether we should continue to promote pooling, as a ‘Scottish good’. If we believe in pooling, we should provide more catalysing funds for it.”