Small but Perfectly Formed: supporting the “small” research group

This blog first appeared on the GuildHE website.


As demonstrated by REF 2014, research at UK higher education institutions both world-leading and diverse. Research England, the new research funding body, is paying heed to this fact, with policies and programmes intended to directly address the needs of “small” research groups.

But if you asked twenty civil servants what a “small” research group is, it’s a safe bet that you’d get twenty different answers. And, if policy-makers aren’t clear about their objectives or target groups, unintended consequences will follow, as the night the day.

Missed opportunities

One such targeted funding stream is the Expanding Excellence in England (E3) fund, which exists to “help grow small but excellent research units and departments in English universities”.

This is a laudable aim.

Small grants can make a big difference to modest teams with limited resources. They can drive significant growth, catalysing the research environment, culture, and capacity of both the research group and the whole institution.

What’s more, where those small groups exist in smaller and specialist institutions, new funding could have an even greater impact. Such institutions normally focus on applied research, with close ties to specialist industries, and are distributed across the country, including in areas which have seen little growth or investment in recent decades. They are thus well-placed to meet priorities identified in the Government’s Industrial Strategy.

Troublingly the technical specification for E3 does not live up to this promise. Instead, it notes that “owing to the diverse nature of the sector the broad disciplinary scope of this fund, a singular definition of ‘small’ is impractical.”

This leaves open the possibility that research units which are small by some measures, but part of larger, well-resourced institutions, absorb available funding. Fledgeling units in less research-intensive institutions may well miss out on this opportunity.

Defining the undefinable

We can get a picture of what small research groups actually look like by considering data from REF 2014.

Across nearly 2000 submissions, relating to 154 institutions, and 36 units of assessment (UoAs), the average number of staff per institution UoA was 27.2 FTE.

Significantly, the distribution of staff per institution UoA was concentrated at the smaller end of the spectrum, with a long tail of larger teams. Figure 1 shows this distribution (we recommend viewing these visualisations in full screen mode).

We can also break this down by subject (UoA), as in Figure 2.

The median number of FTE staff per institution UoA is just 18.2, while the lower quartile across the sector is 11.8FTE.

Interestingly, 80% of the units of assessment submitted by GuildHE and CREST members in 2014 – a group which consciously identifies as small or specialist – were below the 11.8 FTE lower quartile. These research units are most often found in institutions with a traditional teaching focus, but in which there is a growing commitment to research and impact.

Go easy on me

While E3, and the new RED fund, skirt around the issue by simply leaving ‘“small” undefined, the REF managers have taken a different line.

Institutions may request not to submit units, with less than 5 FTE. But this simply means that potentially excellent research goes unrecognised. In the smallest institutions this would include a majority of their submissions; hardly an ideal solution.

The REF managers also recently announced that the threshold for additional impact case studies – above the two required for all UoAs – would be increased from 15 to 20 FTE staff (above the 18.2 FTE median).

This is a welcome change for those groups struggling to meet the new requirements to include all research active staff. Yet it means that there is no distinction in REF between the impact evidence required from a unit with 6 staff and one with 19, though the two would be very different in practice.

The reality is that, as currently planned, REF 2021 offers is no real reduced burden option for very small units at all.

The wrong tools for the job

Current funding mechanisms aren’t great for smaller institutions, and the new REF rules, unfortunately, result in a heavy administrative burden for institutions that can least afford it.

Policies and funding streams must explicitly recognise the differences in scale and capacity between research groups and institutions if the UK’s diverse research environment is to flourish. Only then can they help “build a Britain fit for the future”.