Universal Basic Research Income: A Different Approach to Funding Research

Words by Matthew Smith,  joint runner up in the CDBU Essay Prize Competition 2022.

I am a historian, but I’ve been spending the last few months playing the lottery.  Not a lottery that can put money in my bank account, but a lottery that can put money in my research account.  That’s right, the funding lottery.  And I suspect that, given the odds, I’ll be losing.

As a senior academic in the UK, and someone who has served as vice dean of research for a large humanities and social sciences faculty, I am expected to apply for funding to pay for my research.  And as a dutiful employee, I do so.  I spend incalculable time and energy building up grant applications for grand projects that map onto the aims of funders in the hopes of winning big.  I devote hundreds of hours to figuring out funding schemes, courting collaborators, calculating budgets, filling out forms and second-guessing funding panels.  All to have about a 10% chance of winning.  Is this efficient?  And is it fair?

The answer to these questions is: no.  I shudder to think of all the publications I could have written instead of slaving away on funding applications.  But, the inefficiencies associated with the present funding system don’t end with the time spent developing unsuccessful applications.  We should also consider all of the other people involved in developing and assessing these bids.  Every application that comes out of our university has to be fully costed, for example.  Most applications will be reviewed internally and then assessed by external reviewers and funding panels.  And then there are all the staff within the funders themselves.  That is significant human resource spent on unsuccessful applications.  

Even if an application is successful, efficient research will not necessarily follow.  For large grants, PIs often spend most of their time managing and supervising, rather than doing research.  Funding typically follows the law of diminishing returns: when more money is available, proportionally less gets done.  When I sit on funding panels, I often compare the amount of funding researchers bring in to the amount and quality of publications they produce.  One does not necessarily lead to the other.  Finally, there are inefficiencies in terms of the income brought to the university.  A university that will remain nameless recently won a massive grant of close to £20 million.  Once it has paid for everything that it promised to impress the funders and once the extortionate cost of managing the grant has been added up, this flagship project ended up costing the university millions. 

The system also divides researchers in haves and have-nots, those who tend to win funding and those who do not.  Given the competitive nature of most funding schemes, it’s almost impossible for researchers who lack a track record of winning grants to get on the funding ladder.  These people either continue to haplessly apply for funding when they should be doing something more fruitful, or they give up, often giving up on career progression in so doing.  

And Now for Something Different

Imagine another approach to funding research where, instead of spending inordinate amounts of time developing unsuccessful grant applications, you simply received a set amount of funding every year to do your research.  Think of it as Universal Basic Research Income or UBRI, a similar concept to that of Universal Basic Income or UBI, which has been gaining traction in recent years, not least because of the pandemic and the furlough schemes introduced.  UBRI would replace much of the current UKRI funding (simply replace the K with a B), but it could also be embraced by charitable funders.  As the ‘B’ in UBRI indicates, it would provide a basic amount of funding, enough to ensure that an individual in their discipline would be able to conduct original research and disseminate it.  An academic would be free to use their UBRI up every year or save it up over a few years to pay for something more significant, such as a research assistant.  And, as with a UBI, a UBRI would come to academics automatically, without question, for them to use it as they saw fit.  We would trust them to use it wisely, to identify the most pressing research questions and to determine the best approach to answering them. 

Determining the basic amount provided in a UBRI would be discipline specific.  Believe it or not, not all research costs the same.  Scientists and engineers typically require more equipment and more staff to carry out their research than those of us in the humanities and social sciences.  But even the costs associated with research in specific disciplines can vary.  And we should be honest about that.  Here’s an example:  Right now, there are two different projects that I would like to develop.  One requires visits to dozens of North American archives and the creation of 100 oral history interviews.  If I had a UBRI, I could eventually complete such a project, but it would take a decade or more.  It really requires a grant to pay for some post-doctoral support and all that travel and/or digitisation.  For these kinds of projects, a UBRI could be supplemented by competitive funding schemes to fund larger projects.  What would change is that the nature of the project would dictate whether an academic opted for the competitive route, not institutional pressure.  My other project, in contrast to the first, is a longue durée project that would require some archival research, but would also rely a great deal on published sources that are available digitally.  This project is simply not very expensive.  It requires some funding, but not enough to justify a large grant application.  All it requires is UBRI, perhaps another academic to spend their UBRI working on it and a bit of time (more on that soon).  Both projects have the potential to lead to world-leading outputs and transformative impact.  Currently, I feel pressure to opt for the first, more expensive one, simply because my university would benefit more from it.  This should not be what determines my decision, however.  

But what about the most precious academic commodity: time?  For most grants in the humanities and social sciences, at least, freeing up time for research through teaching relief is the most costly item.  Here, too, a UBRI can help.  Most proponents of UBI argue that it would not stand on its own, but provide a foundation for more progressive social and health policies.  This would be the same with a UBRI, especially when it comes to time.  Most academics are contracted to teach 2 days/week, conduct research 2 days/week and do administration 1 day/week.  Many struggle to ensure that those 2 days/week are actually used for research.  This is due to a combination of factors, ranging from the personal (poor time management and lack of confidence) to the systemic (universities not accounting administrative and teaching time accurately and the more pressing nature of these duties: a book deadline is more easily put off than an essay marking deadline) and many factors in between.  A UBRI would mean that, rather than spending endless hours writing grant proposals to free themselves of teaching and administration, academics could work with their employers to devise more effective and efficient ways of carving out time for research.  For some the solution might be cramming all teaching into one semester, freeing up time to research and write in the next.  For others, it could be saving up their UBRI over a few years to pay for additional teaching relief.  A UBRI would allow academics more freedom to develop research plans that are based on certainties, not the funding lottery.  And, rather than throwing most of their support behind grant winners, universities would be encouraged to work with academics to create workload models that were truly supportive of research.

In this way, a UBRI could also facilitate a shift from the quantity of publications to the quality of publications.  REF 2021 was meant to encourage this by lowering the number of publications per full time academic member of staff from 4 to 2.5.  But while the REF scores for quality were higher (how could they not be given the arithmetic?), they were not dramatically so.  Demonstrating the emphasis on quantity is the proliferation of academic journals, some of which are decidedly dodgy.  These journals capitalise on the ‘publish or perish’ mentality in academia.  The situation is made worse by the fact that thousands of articles never get read, let alone cited.  With the security of a UBRI, academics could focus instead on achieving a smaller number of higher quality publications.  This is partly because, compared to a funding application, submitting an article to a journal is a decent prospect.  There is less competition, for a start, and the process is more constructive.  Unlike funding competitions, where you either win or lose, authors realise that submitting an article is only the beginning of a process of revising and resubmitting.  Even if an article is rejected, the author can dust themselves off and submit it to another journal.  Eventually, the submission will improve and be publishable, especially if some additional support is provided (see below).  There are fewer options and much less hope with a rejected grant application.  

Just as a UBI would preclude the need for gatekeepers in the welfare system (the people who determine whether you were deserving of benefits or not), a UBRI would eliminate the need for certain research-related roles in academia.  But, just as the gatekeepers within a UBI-based welfare system could be reallocated to different roles (for instance, actually helping people deal with intractable problems rather than screening them from benefits), research-related staff could be similarly redeployed.  It is fair to say that a UBRI would result in fewer fixed-term post-docs, for example.  But the money freed up (along with the enhanced fiscal certainty in a UBRI system) could lead to more permanent jobs for early career researchers, rather than precarious posts.  They could still collaborate with more senior staff, but from the safety of a secure role.  Administrative staff who currently support academic staff in their funding bids (far fewer support academic staff if they actually win) could also be redeployed in creative ways.  One example of this is the role of Faculty Editor, a position I created when I was a vice dean of research.  I realised that many academics lacked confidence in their writing, yet felt self-conscious about seeking help from academic colleagues.  They were much more willing to turn to our Faculty Editor to get help with their writing.  The irony, however, is that the twin pressures of REF and research income meant that the Faculty Editor spent far more time reviewing impact case studies and grant applications than helping academics improve their books and articles.  With impact looming so large in the REF, another role that could be created by such a redistribution of resources would be that of public engagement officer.  There are a few of these scattered across some of the larger universities, but what many academics need is a dedicated and knowledgeable colleague to do the proactive work of public engagement.  These roles and others would produce guaranteed and tangible benefits, unlike much of the work of research offices, which primarily amounts to a pile of unsuccessful funding applications.

Overall, a UBRI would prompt academics to be more honest about the real cost of research.  Most of us do not need, nor want, hundreds of thousands of pounds.  Those who think differently should consider why they are in academia.  We just need the basics, along with time guarantees, to do our research.  We want to be able to pursue our own research agenda, not to contort our projects into shapes that will attract funders.  Above all, we want to be trusted – as the experts in our field – to come up with the projects that will help to address the pressing questions of our time.  We don’t need funders to tell us what to do.  We need a UBRI.

Matthew Smith is a Professor of Health History, Centre for the Social History of Health and Healthcare, University of Strathclyde.