The cost of research: are academics paying the price?

Senior academics are under increasing pressure to generate research funding in the higher education sector. With government investment in research still sitting well below the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) average in the UK, academics are feeling the strain and seeking alternative methods of funding. How will a change in the funding process affect the work produced by researchers? Currently, the pressure to secure funds has resulted in academics focusing on turning research into profitable business; this can boost university income and also help continuation of further studies.

The new Research Excellence Framework (REF), which will assess the quality of research in UK higher education institutions from 2015, states that institutions will now have to prove that their research has an impact outside of their own university to receive funding. In the UK alone, several large universities have already started to develop strong links with businesses to boost their income and show the government the impact of the work with economic gain. Could the marketing of higher education be positive? Interestingly, the lecturer’s trade union, the University College Union (UCU), has expressed concern at the lack of traditional funding and indicated opposition to the shift to commercial based research under the new framework.

“There is a real concern that the new system will put pressure on staff to pursue research that will be of benefit to business. 18,000 members signed our petition…which illustrates the unease and concern about this agenda,” the UCU’s policy officer for higher education, Rob Copeland, told the Guardian newspaper. “That puts pressure on them to look elsewhere for money, whether private contracts or consultancy. I expect the pressure to go up,” added Copeland.

Alarmingly, the lack of high-status research funding has not only altered some academics methods, it may have affected their health: university counselling workers have seen a steady increase in people seeking help for mental health problems in the last few years. Recent research from the UCU shows that nearly half of academics show symptoms of psychological distress. The pressure and difficulty in securing sufficient research funding means academics will often sacrifice personal relationships or engagements to prepare proposals; failure could be hugely detrimental to their career. Many experts believe that it could be this imbalance in personal and professional life, related to the need to secure research funding, that is contributing to mental health issues.

In summary, the current research funding system certainly has room for change, particularly when stress and dissatisfaction levels seem to be running so high. University research is one of the greatest assets of the developed world; it inspires many of the discoveries, ideas and inventions which create growth and further development. It should be in a government’s interest to help universities with their research and ensure that the health of an academic is never compromised as a result of the pressure.


13 responses to “The cost of research: are academics paying the price?”

  1. Marshall Avatar

    I have to say this is becoming a real problem for academics, universities are putting enormous pressure on senior academics to bring in money to support their research. This wasn’t a problem in the UK few years ago but now the government ceased to provide financial support to the universities leaving them broke and helpless.

  2. Fenton S Avatar
    Fenton S

    I have always been very suspicious of academics who deal with the commercial sector when it comes to their research. It is even more concerning that now researchers are forced by their universities to deal with this sector in order to provide financial support for their research. Soon the commercial sector will have control over these studies, design, methodologies and even results. Research in the UK used to be the gold standard for the whole world and now…

    1. SE Avatar

      Some academics consider that having your work supported by the commercial sector is inappropriate and may result in your work being directed by the company or the individuals funding your research. I have to say that I have had this at my place of work. Basically when the results are satisfactory and all values are significant then everyone is happy, while if there some adverse events and non-significant results, one of the company managers will be writing to me directly inquiring about the reason. When I spoke to my seniors, they were not happy but mentioned that these are the people funding our research and we cannot tell them to stop sending emails inquiring why the results are not satisfactory. I am now beginning to feel the pressure that every time I have non-significant results then I ll be receiving an email asking me to explain why. So I have no idea where to go from here.

  3. Jim Avatar

    Dear Publication Integrity and Ethics
    Thank you for this nice blog.
    I found many of the comments enlightening.
    Before I start posting some comments, I would like to know the process of moderating these comments and also the identification of people posting these comments.
    Many thanks

    1. admin Avatar

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  4. Kanton Avatar

    The Publication Integrity and Ethics blog says “There is a real concern that the new system will put pressure on staff to pursue research that will be of benefit to business.”
    Please let me correct this, there is already great deal of pressure on university academics. The benefits are less, increase in working hours with reduced pay…so the new system is likely to put more pressure on staff…the concern is that we will be directed by the commercial sector rather than our passion for research…this will without doubt affect the scientific advancement in the UK…furthermore I anticipate a significant increase in mental health problems among university academics who, most of the time, are reluctant to report it or seek help.

    1. S Carl Avatar
      S Carl

      Associating your research with the commercial sector is not that all bad. Very few companies will interfere with your research or try to influence the reporting of the results. Because if this is exposed, at any time, it will lead to the blacklisting of that company and without doubt will damage the researchers reputations for ever. Both academic and commercial parties dont want that (obviously). If you are under pressure, then report it and walk away.

  5. Mr Saleem Avatar
    Mr Saleem

    I hate the fact that every now and then I get called to the dean’s office to provide an update on my academic activities; however one can argue that monitoring is required no matter your level of seniority. What really annoys me that I always get told you need 1-2 articles per year in journal impact factor>6. We all know that the IF system is far from accurate ad gets manipulated really easy but we are still following it!!!

  6. Hopper Avatar

    Unfortunately the new system in the UK is dragging many services to its worse. The policies of the recent governments have in fact shaped our time and will shape the future, but not to the better. It is a known fact that large corporations are interfering with many managerial aspects of an institute or a university, this is a well known fact in the US, where higher education is mainly limited to the upper class of the society due to the very high tuition fees. Unfortunately it looks like that Europe is now looking to follow the bad and dreadful US model and soon our education system will collapse.

    1. Waseem Jerjes Avatar
      Waseem Jerjes

      I think the UK education system has already started collapsing.

  7. Kumar Avatar

    The UK education system has not started collapsing; it is just in a constant state of evolution. Universities may be overcrowded currently but with the introduction of higher fees the numbers will soon level out.

    1. Joe K. Avatar
      Joe K.

      Kumar -You actually think that is the case? The British system of loans means that anyone can go to university, the only difference is the sheer volume of debt that will be acquired. Academics won’t gain anything from the increase.

  8. Carl. S Avatar
    Carl. S

    That’s true – academia gets nothing from the price hike. Universities aren’t making more money than before – the increase merely replaces grants that they used to get.

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