UK Royal Economic Society sounds alarm over decrease in research funding

The Royal Economic Society says it is “deeply concerned” by funding changes that will significantly reduce the money available to universities for economics research in the United Kingdom.

Following the 2021 Research Excellence Framework (REF) assessment process, U.K. government bodies are moving to award funding without adjusting the total share of research grants held by four main subject panels.

The changes will cut funding available for economics, which is a sub-panel, by 16%, compared with the previous 2014 REF assessment period. The reduction comes despite a 58% increase in the quality of economics research over the same timeframe.

REF is the system for assessing the quality of research in U.K. higher education institutions and is used by the four higher education funding bodies to inform the funding allocation.

In a statement, the Royal Economic Society (RES) said: “The Royal Economic Society is deeply concerned by the research funding allocations by discipline for 2022 following the UK Research Excellence Framework (REF) in 2021.”

“We do not believe that this funding settlement was intended to reduce research capacity in Economics. We strongly encourage funding bodies to rethink current funding policy to head off this substantial material risk to the UK’s historical excellence in the field of Economics.”

It added: “The RES considers it a perverse outcome that despite a 58% increase in quality in Economics research, Economics funding has been reduced by 16%.”

Instead of undertaking a fresh assessment of which main subject panels have the highest ranking research and allocating funds accordingly, U.K. government bodies instead have used old criteria from the 2014 REF.

The effect of these changes is that some disciplines within the social sciences will receive a significant reduction in funding because of large increases in overall quality in other social sciences.

Details of the funding change were revealed in a discussion paper published by Timothy Hunt, Hamish Low and Sarah Smith from the University of Oxford.

The REF’s main subject panels are made up of 34 sub-panels, including economics.

Commenting on the funding changes, University of Glasgow Principal and Vice-Chancellor Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli said: “Economics as a discipline is a crucial foundation to effective policymaking in the face of these challenges.  It therefore seems perverse to reduce investment in UK economics research, in a discipline where the UK is globally excellent, at a time when we most need our economists.”

Frontier Economics Chair and former U.K. Cabinet Secretary Lord Gus O’Donnell said: “At a time when the government is having to make tough choices about the allocation of spending, it seems counterproductive to cut research funds for economics which is so valuable in making such decisions.”