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Written on 4 Oct 2021 by Dr Steven Wooding and Becky Ioppolo

Grants aren’t the only way to support research

QR Funding doesn't often get as much recognition as grant awards but it's essential for enabling potentially groundbreaking ideas to grow.

Research funding is more diverse than grant funding

When most academics and university administrators think about money for research, they primarily focus on grants from research councils, charities, and industries. Winning a competitive grant is a way of signalling the quality of research being produced at an institution, but earning this prestige comes at a cost.

Grant applications take time to prepare, as does assessment by peer review panels. Because grants are highly competitive, a lot of effort is wasted on proposals that aren’t funded. Philosophers of science as well as science policy analysts have weighed in on alternatives to grant  peer review. But many forget that the UK government’s support of university research already recognises the value in diversifying funding approaches: it has used a ‘dual support system’ to fund research for decades.

The ‘dual support system’ refers to the two main mechanisms of research funding for universities. One leg of dual support is grant funding which is awarded to specific projects, programs or individuals (as fellowships). The other leg of dual support is a block grant awarded directly to universities, where universities exercise discretion over how to spend the block grant to support research infrastructure. The size of the block grant is related to universities’ performance in the Research Excellence Framework (REF) exercise, which gives the block grant its name: Quality related Research funding (QR).

The QR block grant doesn’t often get as much attention as competitive grant funding, but it has been recognised as an essential aspect of the UK’s research ecosystem by the Royal Society, British Academy, Wellcome Trust, and Russell Group. There have been many evaluations of the return-on-investment for competitive or project funding schemes, but little analysis of how QR creates value for the university research ecosystem. QR has been used for large-scale university strategic initiatives – starting new departments or funding fellowship cohorts – but we were interested in the less high-profile aspects of QR and how it helps individual academics develop their research.

The QR block grant creates an environment where new ideas can be conceived and incubated

Grants from research councils and other external funders are awarded to progress specific, defined ideas, but where do these ideas come from? We know that ideas generally don’t arrive discretely as ‘lightbulb moments’ but instead are developed as ‘slow hunches’. Project-based funding doesn’t support this ‘slow hunch’ stage of research, but the QR block grant does.

We investigated how the QR block grant (and equivalent discretionary funding) is used at the University of Cambridge in ways that individual researchers can make use of and found evidence that QR supports the foundational stages of research. QR funds sabbaticals – time when academics are free from teaching and administrative responsibilities – which allows them to pursue research that they deem useful. We heard stories of academics using their sabbaticals to write a popular science book, to conduct research that was not ‘popular’ with research council funding panels and only subsequently recognised as important, to examine existing data from a new perspective, and to simply follow interesting rabbit holes of inquiry turning up valuable new avenues for research. Some academics told us that sabbaticals were the only time they could carry out significant research because their teaching and administration workload is too demanding to make meaningful progress at other times.

Looking at HR data, we could see how QR funding is used to bridge researchers between fixed term contracts. We also heard how QR is used to support researcher-led interdisciplinary networks across the university, how early career researchers are supported, and about seed grant funding schemes around the university.

For more details on our project’s methods and findings, our report is available on The Value of QR research webpage.

Let’s not ignore institutional discretionary funding

Our research project demonstrates how QR is central to a broad research system, which fits well with ambitions for university research. Not only does QR make up a significant portion of the research income at the University of Cambridge (£127 million, over one sixth of the University’s total research income of £706 million in 2019-2020), but QR supports research in ways that grant schemes cannot.

Regular funding for sabbaticals or seed grant schemes may never be as glamorous as winning a grant. QR may never get as much attention as new science initiatives, like the Government’s recently introduced bill to establish a new Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA), but that doesn’t mean QR isn’t important. Our project sheds light on the foundational resources QR provides upon which academics’ new ideas can blossom.

  • About the author

    Dr Steven Wooding, Affiliated Researcher

    Dr Steven Wooding is a Senior Policy Analyst in the Research Strategy Office at the University of Cambridge, a Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for Science Policy and a Senior Research Associated at the Intellectual Forum at Jesus College. His central research interest is ...   Learn more

  • About the author

    Becky Ioppolo

    Becky Ioppolo is a former Affiliated Researcher at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy. She is interested in understanding the characteristics of high performing research environments, particularly in universities. She worked on the QR Project which aims to understand the value of UK universities’ discretionary funds (block grants) for research purposes and how these discretionary funds complement targeted grant funding.