PBRF changes not to everyone’s liking

June 2014

 

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With the proposed changes to the Performance-Based Research Fund announced, some are pleased to see a focus on more external research income. Others, however, are dismayed that the greater role of research is being neglected in the process.

The new and improved Performance-Based Research Fund (PBRF) is nearly here, with changes to the funding system slowly taking shape, getting ready to be introduced between 2015 and the next Quality Evaluation in 2018. However, the new-look PBRF is not to everyone’s liking, with many claiming the increased emphasis on external funding is to the detriment of research that might benefit the wider public.

 

Changes to the PBRF

In 2012, the Government committed an additional $100 million investment into PBRF over four years, which will result in the fund reaching $300 million in 2016/17. In order to get the best value for money, it was decided an overhaul of the PBRF system was necessary. The review confirmed many of what the tertiary sector knew to be the system’s more clunky traits.

Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment Minister Steve Joyce says the PBRF compares favourably with other performance-based funding systems around the world, however he concedes that it is complex and carries significant compliance costs for institutions and researchers.

Accordingly, in March this year, Joyce announced the likely changes to take place following a brief and targeted consultation period. The changes will focus on simplifying the research assessment process, saving time, reducing costs and strengthening public reporting on research performance. There will also be more emphasis on recruiting and retaining new and emerging researchers, and on attracting external research income from international sources, New Zealand industry, iwi, and not-for-profit organisations.

There is also the possibility that the proportion of PBRF income allocated based on external research income (contestable public research funding) will be increased to 20 per cent of the fund. The external research income component is one of the three elements comprising the PBRF and currently represents 15 per cent of the fund allocation – the other components are the Quality Evaluation (60 per cent of the fund) and the Research Degree Completions (25 per cent). If the external research income component is increased, the value of the Quality Evaluation component will be reduced from 60 per cent to 55 per cent of the fund.

The rationale for increasing the external research income component is to better reward tertiary education organisations that attract income from contestable research funds and contract research. According to Joyce, doing so will apparently bring New Zealand more in line with international practice.

 

Public good neglected

However, the changes surrounding external research funding have sparked criticism from some quarters, with Tertiary Education Union (TEU) vice-president Sandra Grey calling it a “grave mistake” to award greater financial rewards to university research that is already getting external private funding.

“Universities have a role to research all issues, both those that external agencies are willing to pay for and those that they are not. There is some research that business may never want to take place but is still crucial to the wellbeing of our communities. There is also blue skies research that may have no immediate economic benefit but is crucial to our understanding of the world.”

Grey gives the example of asbestos health research that manufacturers tried to ignore for years.

“The problem is that the users of public research are not just those people who pay for it, but everybody. Just because an external agency does not want to pay for research does not mean it is less worthwhile than other research. In fact, it may be more important. And the only way it will be funded is publicly through the PBRF system,” says Grey.

Academic Freedom Aotearoa chairperson Professor Jack Heinemann agrees.

“When academic staff and students serve as critic and conscience they may from time-to-time challenge government, industry and civil society agendas and thereby fall out of favour with those wealthy enough to offer grants and contracts. But the critic and conscience role helps to create space for new ideas and new entrepreneurs as well as prevent poor policy and products.

“To do nothing now to promote the role of the critic and conscience would be to prolong the life of a funding mechanism that encourages conformity and obedience, rather than innovation and novelty,” says Heinemann.

Such concerns were at the heart of many of the 127 submissions received by the Ministry during the initial consultation period last year, including Creative Commons Aotearoa New Zealand’s submission, which stated that while external funding is important, “it is essential that research outputs remain accessible to the wider

New Zealand public, including commercial organisations that are better suited to benefit from those research outputs”.

While the PBRF review has prompted some interesting debate about the wider role of research, others are more persuaded by the more immediate boosts to New Zealand’s economy that a more externally-focused funding process is likely to bring. The next PBRF round will certainly prove to be interesting with the new changes embedded by then. 


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