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Leading universities form funding ‘clique’

30 Oct 2015
Cashing in: a clique of key universities holds the majority of funding

A study of successful physical-sciences grant proposals in the UK has found that a small number of universities obtain the vast majority of funding, forming a “clique”. The study, by mathematicians in the UK and Italy, looked at networks between institutions and between principal investigators on grant proposals. They discovered that funding was “highly skewed”, with around half of all grants given to just 8% of both institutions and principal investigators. More than 90% of all funding was awarded to just 20% of institutions.

Vito Latora of Queen Mary University of London and colleagues examined more than 43,000 projects funded between 1985 and 2013 by the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). The researchers found that the institutions receiving the most funding formed a “rich club” that allowed them to diversify their collaborations and occupy “brokerage positions” between otherwise disconnected institutions. “A network exhibits rich-club behaviour if the nodes with the largest number of links – the dominant elements of the systems – tend to be connected to each other, forming tightly interconnected communities,” says Latora.

The study found that the number of citations among an institution’s researchers and its h-index – a link between the quantity and impact of research papers – increased relative to the number of years an organization spent in the rich club, indicating a rise in the quality. The number of research areas carried out at an institution was also found to increase relative to the number of years in the rich club, indicating an increase in the breadth of research.

Three universities – Imperial College London and the universities of Cambridge and Manchester – showed a marked deviation in their h-index scores, however, outperforming other institutions. These organizations also showed an increased performance when total funding was compared with the number of years in the rich club, suggesting their outstanding funding profiles enabled them to generate high-quality papers.

The researchers say that the notion that a clique of institutions controls the majority of resources is not entirely unfavourable. “Arguably, those elite affiliations that have successfully become very rich seemed to have produced in both the variety of research, and unmistakably in quality,” the researchers claim. Latora points out that other well-funded institutions, which might have less capacity to expand, “have consistently benefited from their association with the elites through the rich core”.

EPSRC director Lesley Thompson told physicsworld.com that it was aware that the majority of its funding was going to a core group of institutions, but “this is the outcome of funding proposals received and judged primarily on excellence by peer review”. She says that the 12 universities that EPSRC classifies as its “framework universities” (which receive nearly 60% of its funding) fluctuates over time, “as do those institutions in the group we call ‘strategic universities’, who hold a further 20% of our portfolio”. Thompson adds that EPSRC looks for high-impact research “wherever it is found in UK universities – we currently fund excellent research in 102 universities and other academic institutions across the UK“.

Ellen Hazelkorn, director of the Higher Education Policy Research Unit at Dublin Institute of Technology, says that the results match a similar analysis carried out in the European Union. “What we see is not only a consolidation of research performance in a smaller number of institutions, but also a regressive transfer of resources into a smaller number of elite institutions,” she says. “There are both inevitable and negative consequences; the quality of the research and the quality of the research environment is incredibly important, and small institutions without sufficient critical mass and success are less likely to be able to provide this.” Hazelkorn adds that by concentrating research in a small number of institutions, people may be ignoring high-quality research being carried out by a wider group of institutions in niche areas.

The research is published in PNAS.

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