Anger as social sciences lose cash to STEM under REF rule change

Sciences gain £145 million that would have gone to humanities and social sciences under old system

January 26, 2023
Group of unused laboratory coats and mannequins at Westminster, Central London to highlight the fact that the Government is cutting funding from the national research budget to illustrate Anger as social sciences lose cash to STEM under REF rule change
Source: Alamy

Some of the UK’s most senior economists have criticised “perverse” outcomes of revised rules that will cut quality-related (QR) funding to the field by £6 million a year and to the social sciences more broadly by more than £100 million, despite a sharp improvement in Research Excellence Framework ratings.

Under changes made for the 2021 REF by Research England, the share of funding for its four main panels – medicine, health and life sciences; physical sciences, engineering and mathematics; social sciences; and arts and humanities – was fixed at 2014 REF levels. It was not adjusted to reflect the total share of quality across the panels – in effect, stopping the transfer of funds to disciplines where quality had risen substantially.

However, this rule – and the new requirement that all research-active staff submit at least one output, leading to a 46 per cent increase in entrants – appears to have dramatically skewed QR funding shares within some panels.

THE Campus views: Don’t let the REF tail wag the academic dog

Business and management studies is now the biggest winner from the social sciences panel, receiving £66 million annually in QR support, or 37 per cent of the total available, according to a paper by economists from the universities of Oxford and Bristol. This follows a doubling of the number of full-time equivalent staff submitted and a 139 per cent increase in quality ratings.

Meanwhile, economics will receive £12 million a year, £6 million less than it would have received under the 2014 rules, in which funding followed quality regardless of subject. This comes despite a 22 per cent rise in the number of submissions and a 58 per cent improvement in quality, but other disciplines reported much bigger increases.

The shift has been criticised by the Royal Economic Society, which said it was “deeply concerned” that the social sciences as a whole would lose out on £100 million annually.

Sir Anton Muscatelli, principal of the University of Glasgow, said it was “perverse to reduce investment in UK economics research” at a time of financial uncertainty, while Lord Stern of Brentford – who oversaw the 2021 REF reforms – said it “cannot make sense to cut research resources for economics at this time”.

Other disciplines will lose out, too. Classics will forfeit £1.9 million annually (down 12 per cent), modern languages and linguistics misses out on £6 million (5 per cent) and the philosophy budget faces a £2.8 million (7.5 per cent) cut.

Hamish Low, James Meade professor of economics at Oxford and the study’s co-author, said the rule change had redirected £145 million that would have gone to the humanities and social sciences to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects instead.

“The REF’s principle is that funding follows quality, but that fundamentally has not happened this time – maybe because, if it did, the results would have been unpalatable in some political dimensions,” said Professor Low.

Under the 2014 formula, an extra £10.4 million would have gone to English, £10.1 million to politics and £12 million to education, the study says. Clinical medicine would have lost £10.6 million, biological sciences £10.7 million and engineering £33.3 million.

Research England said it had sought to “maintain stability and continuity in our investment in research, recognise the outcomes of REF 2021 and reflect the policy direction set out in our funding and priorities letter from BEIS [the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy]”.

The funder said a 10 per cent increase in total QR funding “smooths changes made to the funding formula” and noted that since QR is a block grant, there was “no requirement for [universities] to mirror Research England’s calculations”.

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Reader's comments (5)

Economists are their own worst enemies. They diss each others research and then get a big cut while rubbish subjects like management get more money ! I know of economics department that made excellent REF submissions only to get far lower grades than they deserved from the Economics REF panel. The big six economic department diss everyone else's work and protect their own backsides. Other subject areas like Sociology give away 4 ratings on third class submission like no tomorrow. Same with management they end up with more money and the economics less money - the economists are ultimately getting their comeuppance.
Lower grades than they deserve? Why, what grades did they deserve, and who determined those?
What this article fails to mention, even though it is well-known and easily evidenced, is that many economists are now in business schools. The overall number of institutions that submit to the economics panel (rather than cross-referring outputs from business & management to economics) has become lower with each REF (RAE). So really, for a substantial number of economists, this is not really an issue, because they will benefit from the increase in business & management funding together with their business school colleagues.
"rule change had redirected £145 million that would have gone to the humanities and social sciences to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects instead." This seems to be an excellent way of ensuring value-for-money when there is only so much to go around. Great decision.
@ #3 Quite! And within business and management and the ESRC, economists hoover up a lions share of business and management research funding for their religion dressed as science that is neoclassical economics. I am still drying my crocodile tears, so sad. ;)