Page last updated at 00:03 GMT, Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Protest over research funds plan

By Sean Coughlan
Education reporter, BBC News

Einstein
Academics identify Einstein as a classic blue-skies thinker

University professors are due to march on Parliament later to protest at planned changes in funding they say will threaten "blue-skies" research.

They oppose plans in England to offer extra financial incentives for research that has "demonstrable benefits" to the economy, society or culture.

They argue imaginative ideas will lose out to "unoriginal research proposals".

The Higher Education Funding Council for England says it will still support "curiosity driven research".

The academic protest will include an unveiling, by the University and College Union, of a picture of Albert Einstein in Westminster.

Einstein has been chosen because he once said: "If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?"

Some 18,000 people, including six Nobel prize winners, have signed a petition protesting against the planned funding changes, which would come in from 2013.

'Abstract research'

The academics argue that the Research Excellence Framework proposals will push research towards business-friendly ideas and will count against those whose imaginative ideas might ultimately prove more valuable.

Nobel prize winner, Sir Tim Hunt, says requiring research to prove its practical impact will promote "unoriginal research proposals".

"The whole idea of research is to find out things that you didn't know before. The fruits of basic research are unpredictable and to seek to control them in this way is not in the interests of the country," he said.

A further 105 academics have backed a submission from Educators for Reform, linked to the Reform think tank, which is also campaigning against the funding changes.

They say that many discoveries and innovations have come from blue-skies research and argue that universities should be "set free to pursue pure academic research".

They argue that the government's pursuit of value for money is not appropriate for research which can be an "open-ended exploration".

As examples they say that x-rays, the liquid crystal display and Google's search algorithm derived from such "abstract research".

The changes propose that 25% of funding would depend upon the "economic, social, public policy, cultural and quality of life" impact of the research.

The four UK funding councils provide £1.76bn for research - and the Higher Education Funding Council for England rejects the accusation that the changes will limit creative research.

"These proposals are concerned about acknowledging excellent research that makes a real difference to society," said a spokesman.

"We will certainly not expect every academic to deliver impact but will look to the collective impact of academics working together in universities - not every piece of research.

"We are concerned with far more than just the economic impact."



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