Is a university that provides internal funds to its researchers being indulgent?
Matchett wondered whether internal funding would be a luxury that our brave new world of deregulated universities could not offer:
the days when universities can afford such relatively low impact schemes may end once deregulation kicks in – it will be harder to fund lab time or a travel grant from undergraduate fees if they are set in a competitive market.
This got me thinking about the consequences of deleting the capacity-building potential of internal funding for researchers or research projects.
What would happen if this development did not happen at this level? Is helping to build your own institution’s research capacity and experience a ‘luxury’ that universities today can’t afford? Is growing your own fabulous researchers an impossible aim?
Let’s start with a declaration of conflict of interest.
I’m a lecturer in research education and development so, of course, I believe that developing researchers and ‘growing your own’ research capacity is a Good Thing.
At the most fundamental levels, organisations need to invest in the development of their staff. Across many different sectors, research already shows that importing stars has longer-term detrimental effects on staff morale. Often, the ‘stars’ also fail to perform as productively as at their former institutions, and this can be due to the uprooting of these people from embedded support structures (staff and resources) that enabled their success in the first place. These structures may not always work together for that staff in the way they did.
Researchers do not succeed alone, and I’m not talking here about research teams or co-investigators. I’m referring to the research environment that surrounds you: peer cohorts and senior researchers from whom you can learn and gain encouragement; professional administrative staff who boost your ability to do your research and make an impact; and focused funding to make the most of research opportunities and ensure regular runs on the conference board.
Internal funding can be particularly useful when sudden U-turns in institutional priorities leave various researchers out in the cold, outputs-wise. The situation isn’t an indication of those researchers’ skills, except – perhaps – that they failed in crystal-ball-gazing. They are not unsuccessful researchers. Having resources to build a new area can be crucial to their continued, constructive productivity. The same goes for researchers who want, or need, to change their field of research after moving to new institutions or departments.
I see internal funding as a part of active university research cultures. Having supportive and savvy internal programs in place to ensure your researchers are as competitive as possible seems like a no-brainer.
Some academics contest whether internal funding really does create more competitive projects and researchers.
From my experience in research development and as an academic, I’d say it makes good track-records better, and allows proactive researchers to map successful grant trajectories.
Where the jury’s out, however, is whether internal funding can activate and transform the track-records of those who are not particularly grant-ready. On my earlier internal funding post, Andrew Derrington commented:
As a rough generalisation I’d say that the main (only?) good thing about internal funds is that they make it possible to do things – go to a conference, do a piece of research, write a paper, write a research grant or whatever.
Derrington appears dubious that internal funding can do more than a paper here or there. But can it do more than that? I think so, for the reasons I’ve outlined here, and I’m interested in hearing others’ thoughts on this.
If there was little or no internal funding available at your university, how would it have affected you and your work?