Research Intelligence - Keep wise council - but not seven
Calls to thin RCUK ranks point to coordinated benefits of slimline solutions. Paul Jump reports
Wisdom may have seven pillars, but questions are increasingly being raised about whether seven is the wisest number when it comes to funding UK research.
The UK's present septemvirate of research councils has evolved over the past half-century, its most recent development being the creation of the Science and Technology Facilities Council by the merger of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council and the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils in 2007.
The fledgling STFC endured bitter criticism from researchers over both its funding priorities and its perceived failure to engage with them.
In addition, the Research Councils UK project to pool back-office functions in the Shared Services Centre went over time and budget, overruns criticised in a National Audit Office report last year.
Nevertheless, some observers believe the time is right to ask why research council integration should stop there. Kevin Schurer, pro vice-chancellor for research and enterprise at the University of Leicester, is one of them. He said that to his knowledge, every other country got by with fewer research councils than the UK, with Australia contenting itself with just one.
He believed the onus should be on those who advocate more than one to justify their view.
Such a justification was provided by Alan Thorpe, former chair of RCUK, who argued before the Commons Science and Technology Committee in January 2011 that the research councils had already gone as far as it was sensible to go in integration terms. The need to maintain "disciplinary specialism and expertise" within any envisaged structure meant that further formal integration would merely be "academic", he said.
But Professor Schurer said that additional integration would promote greater coordination of the research councils' application and administrative processes, as well as in relation to policies such as open access, data management, outcome reporting and demand management.
Current differences in approach meant that universities' research support offices were "constantly duplicating systems internally", which was "madness", he said.
In a single research council, each discipline would be protected with ring-fenced budgets, but there would also be some "slack" to fund proposals that spanned disciplinary boundaries.
This meant that interdisciplinary proposals would be judged entirely on their own merits, with no thought for which disciplinary pot they fell into, Professor Schurer added.
David Price, vice-provost for research at University College London, acknowledged that progress had been made in establishing cross-council programmes to fund interdisciplinary research, but questioned whether these "wouldn't be easier and have happened faster in a different institutional arrangement".
He added that there was a danger that in times of scarcity, distinct research councils would concentrate their funding on "what they perceive to be their core business", leaving less for the "key areas" at the boundaries.
Professor Price also agreed that there was scope for further policy alignment, arguing that the perceived need for approaches to be tailored to differing academic cultures was belied by the large groupings of disciplines that co-existed "very productively" in universities.
He suggested that the UK needed only three research councils - one for the life sciences, one for the physical sciences, and one for the humanities and social sciences - plus a body to look after national facilities and international partnerships.
Save at the back, spend at the front
Tim Blackman, pro vice-chancellor for research and scholarship at The Open University, said there was no reason why other funders such as the Technology Strategy Board and the National Institute for Health Research should be left out of the merger picture.
As well as promoting interdisciplinary research and aligning policies, the savings created by mergers could be used to protect front-line research budgets.
"However, there needs to be a clear appraisal of costs and benefits first, since there is evidence from other sectors that mergers do not necessarily deliver efficiency gains," he warned.
Nor is everyone convinced that mergers would benefit science. For Ian Walmsley, pro vice-chancellor for research at the University of Oxford, optimal funding structures promote the generation of "the smartest ideas" and efficient testing "to see whether they really have any legs".
But since spotting "legs" was a necessarily imprecise science, it made sense to establish multiple opportunities for researchers to make the case for their existence, Professor Walmsley said.
For this reason, he favoured a proliferation of research councils with overlapping remits - at least for blue-skies research within science, engineering and quantitative social science.
Despite the existence of European and quality-related funding, Professor Walmsley said the "real danger" of the UK's current system - particularly given the ban on resubmissions imposed by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council - was that good researchers failed to secure funding and went "below threshold".
"Booting that up again is very costly if it is feasible at all," he said.
Such perils were heightened by the fact that, unlike the US National Science Foundation, the UK research councils did not second academic experts to run their programmes. Early conversations with such figures could give a useful "steer" on what a successful application would look like, Professor Walmsley argued.
He added that the controversy over "heavy-handed" policies such as demand management, resubmission bans and the EPSRC's "shaping capability" agenda had jaundiced his fellow pro vice-chancellors' views of the research councils, even though most still believed their structure was "broadly right".
The controversy over the EPSRC policy - which prompted critics to write several letters to the prime minister - has also given Andrew Miller, chair of the Commons Science and Technology Committee, pause for thought.
He had no firm view about whether the current research council structure was optimal and said he would be reluctant to see politicians intervene, in potential breach of the Haldane principle. Nor did Mr Miller believe that any decisions should be driven by a search for efficiency savings.
But he noted that even a "leading official" from within the research councils had privately expressed concerns that some interdisciplinary proposals might "fall between the cracks" in the current system.
This was all the more reason for the research councils themselves, informed by the "leading lights" in each discipline, to examine whether they could do more to adopt "common approaches", he added.
"It is better to look at these things when the system is under economic pressure because when there are oodles of cash about ... some of the difficult decisions don't have to be made," Mr Miller said.
He agreed that the research councils had, in a sense, created "a rod for their own back by doing the right thing" in moving into the same building and creating the Shared Services Centre.
This had encouraged observers to ask why they could not go further, Mr Miller said.
He also agreed that expecting the research councils to conclude that they were too numerous might be like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas.
But he added: "These are responsible bodies that ought to be continually asking themselves: 'Have we got it right and is there something structurally wrong when we acknowledge we make mistakes or are criticised by outsiders?' "
Look out for an analysis of the split between the quality-related and research council budgets in a fortnight.