As the research councils’ dwindling flow of funding buoys up an increasingly select group of institutions, those listing on the margins could be forgiven for assuming that no senior research council figure would touch them with the proverbial bargepole.
However, Astrid Wissenburg, former deputy chief executive of the Economic and Social Research Council, declared herself delighted to have been appointed head of the office of the pro vice-chancellor for research, scholarship and quality at The Open University.
But she is not expecting to be driven to repudiate any of the major policy decisions she helped to formulate and implement during her decade at the ESRC, including a two-month “moment of glory” as interim chief executive in 2010.
“We were always conscious of how decisions would affect institutions both individually and collectively, but you are always aware what you are doing as a research council is from a national perspective. A particular institution may find a certain decision really annoying and disadvantageous, but that is just how things are,” she said.
One decision that doubtless irked The Open University was last year’s rejection of its joint bid with the University of East Anglia to host a doctoral training centre.
The confinement of ESRC doctoral studentships to just 21 consortia, involving 45 pre-1992 universities, was seized on by critics as proof that the research councils were pursuing an agenda of concentrating research in certain institutions. But Dr Wissenburg insisted that the councils’ only intention was to concentrate funding on excellence.
She described The Open University - where she began work last month - as “a very solid, mid-range research organisation” in ESRC terms, with funding levels on a par with the likes of the universities of Liverpool, St Andrews and Surrey.
Hard choices ahead
Nevertheless, she admitted that institutions outside the research elite faced “hard choices” about how to leverage their areas of particular research strength to attract external funding. But she also conceded that a university such as The Open University - with a large number of students and a strong commitment to research-based teaching - needed to maintain a broad spread of research.
For this reason, a good performance in the research excellence framework (whose results will determine the allocation of quality-related funding beyond 2015) would be critically important for the research strategy that Dr Wissenburg will assist her pro vice-chancellor, Tim Blackman, to formulate and implement.
She was confident that despite the likely restriction of funding to research rated 3* or 4* in the REF, there would be little change in The Open University’s place in the resourcing pecking order.
Dr Wissenburg’s remit also includes overseeing the establishment of The Open University’s fund for paying open-access fees, as required by Research Councils UK. As chair of RCUK’s Research Outputs Group, she was instrumental in shaping its new open-access policy - not least in her capacity as RCUK representative on the Finch group, upon whose report the policy is based.
Many in the sector have expressed concerns about the financial implication of the report’s preference for author-pays “gold” open access over the repository-based “green” option. But Dr Wissenburg defended the Finch report’s choice, arguing that gold permits instant access and reuse, whereas green is not a “sustainable solution” for publishers.
Nevertheless, she agreed that crucial to the sustainability of that choice for funders and institutions would be the rest of the world quickly following the UK’s lead on gold, thereby removing the need for UK institutions to continue paying both subscription and article fees.
Dr Wissenburg said she was confident that this would happen, and warned that if other countries opted instead to enforce a green mandate, publishers could react by greatly lengthening the embargo periods they insist on before permitting repository deposit.
She agreed that it was important to make sure that publishers did not reap excessive profits from gold article fees, and said she hoped that universities would collaborate not merely on the best ways to set up systems for the administration and allocation of fees but also on negotiating fee levels with publishers.
She denied claims that the social sciences and humanities had been almost accidentally swept up in what was in essence a government-driven effort to boost innovation and growth by affording business greater access to scientific research.
“A lot of the materials being published by social science are of key importance to, for example, policymakers,” Dr Wissenburg noted.
Of course, researchers are already supposed to engage with potential beneficiaries of their research as part of RCUK’s “pathways to impact” requirements. Dr Wissenburg was chair of RCUK’s Impact Group, which devised that contentious policy. She said much of the controversy had derived from the false assumption that the impact agenda - which, she insisted, was no different from previous research council emphases on knowledge transfer and public understanding of science - implied that the balance of funding was shifting from pure to applied research.
“None of that has proved to be right, nor was it ever the intention,” she said. The angry letters had petered out and taking impact into account was now seen by most researchers as a “natural” part of writing a proposal, she added.
She said there had been a general mellowing of the ESRC’s relationship with researchers in recent years owing to its increased efforts to consult as many of them as possible before taking decisions - although Dr Wissenburg admitted that this was not easy because of the large number of social scientists and the ESRC’s “very small” office of just over 100 staff.
She said the impact agenda had helped to narrow the differences in culture between the university and public sectors over financial accountability. Having previously worked exclusively in university administration, she had initially found the research councils’ focus on “spending public money responsibly” something of a surprise. However, she agreed that some cultural differences remained, and it was part of a research council’s job to straddle them.
“It can be a difficult position, not so much in terms of being pushed from both sides to do something differently, but in terms of managing communications between government and the academy and building understanding between them,” she said.
“I see research councils as major advocates for the academic community with a key role to play in making government with its drivers understand what the funding is going to and what the benefits are. But they also have to bring the academic community along in understanding that [funding] is not just a free good.”
Such bridge-building was made much easier when research council chief executives were themselves academics - for which reason Dr Wissenburg did not believe that the ESRC’s top job would ever have been a possibility for her.
“Personally, I would have loved to do it, but I would worry if research councils lost their connectivity with the academic community by having senior staff coming in from outside.
“They need to remain open to all those different inputs, or they may become too insular and inward-looking,” she said.