The state of play on public research funding

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Scientific research in advanced economies heavily relies on public funding. Since World War II, governments have invested significant resources in advancing scientific knowledge, developing useful technologies, and enhancing skills. However, there is limited information available on the structure, composition, and evolution of the public system of research funding. To address this gap, the Handbook of Public Funding of Research has been published (Edward Elgar Publishing, 2023). The book features 21 chapters authored by top experts from political science, economics, and sociology, summarising the main research and highlighting new directions for study.

We spoke about this with Benedetto Lepori, professor at the Faculty of Communication, Culture and Society at USI and editor of the volume, along with Ben Jongbloed and Diana Hicks.

Professor Lepori, can you explain the different forms of public funding for research?

There are two main forms of public funding for research. The first is funding given to universities and research institutions, who then distribute the funds internally. The second form is funding given directly to individual researchers or research teams for specific projects. These two forms work together, with core funding providing long-term strategies and infrastructure support, while project funding allows for the recognition of outstanding skills and research ideas. However, the balance between the two forms varies by country, with a shift towards project funding in recent years. This is because projects are seen as more directly related to merit and can provide answers to political and economic questions.

What are the consequences of the increased use of competitive funding that puts the various institutions in competition?

Competition and competitors are built into the research system and are essential to ensure its smooth functioning. In recent decades, however, many countries have promoted direct competition for funding over the traditional competition between universities and researchers for reputation (which then indirectly translates into funding). Research in this field agrees that direct competition, for instance, by funding universities based on publication volume, generates an increase in the volume of scientific production, but with adverse effects on quality and innovation. Introducing economic incentives is necessary but requires much attention to the specific characteristics of science.

Public funding of research often includes aspects not directly related to results, such as diversity or sustainability. Is this an effective solution?

It is widely accepted that science plays a crucial role in addressing societal issues and that researchers are responsible for contributing to this cause. The debate centres on the most effective approach to achieving this goal. Some argue that allowing research to operate freely will yield the best results in the long term, while others believe that targeted funding is necessary due to the urgency of the problems at hand. A combination of both approaches is likely the most effective solution.

Could funding create inequality among institutions and researchers?

In academia, there has been a longstanding issue of certain individuals and institutions receiving more recognition and funding than others. However, it’s crucial to avoid policies that worsen this situation. Having a range of research areas is valuable because it can lead to discoveries in unexpected places. Additionally, it’s more appropriate for our diverse country to have a variety of geographical and social structures.