Unfunded research takes time and money for already stretched academics. Yet it makes up over a quarter of all research carried out in British universities. Professor Rosalind Edwards has spoken to academics about why they do unfunded research and argues that universities need to revalue this work in light of the significant contribution it makes to the impact agenda.
Over a quarter of all research carried out in British universities is said to be unfunded. It is termed a budget deficit, amounting to 37 per cent of research being cross-subsidies from the teaching income stream. That’s the institutional point of view.
Why then, do researchers do unfunded research? And what is the value of it- for researchers themselves as well as for their institutions? If we shift standpoint, away from institutional accounting, then unfunded research does, in fact, have value, for the academics themselves, and also for institutions where its quality and impact can contribute to institutional reputation and coffers.
What are researchers’ perspectives?
To hear their perspectives, I spoke to 30 academics at different career stages in a range of disciplines, who have carried out unfunded research about their experiences.
The first thing that became evident is that ‘unfunded’ is a bit of a misnomer. In reality, it is often self-funded, both in terms of finances and investment of time.
Unfunded or self-funded?
The first thing that became evident is that ‘unfunded’ is a bit of a misnomer. In reality, it is often self-funded, both in terms of finances and investment of time. Academics can be using their own money to underwrite research expenses, and undertaking their research activities in evenings, weekends and holidays – what several wryly referred to as ‘research as a hobby’.
Research grants and time lags
It also became clear that while being unsuccessful with a research funding bid was one reason, it certainly isn’t the main reason why academics conduct unfunded work. Quite often the people I spoke to had not applied for an external grant for the unfunded projects we discussed. They felt that the effort involved in writing the application, and the time spent waiting for an outcome with a high likelihood of failure, could be better spent actually doing the research, especially where opportunities came up at short notice. These projects could be defined types of endeavour, such as a proof of concept or computer simulations, through to archival investigations and ethnographies that extended over several years. The academics were motivated by a strong belief that the research ‘needed doing’ – that it would be of value and have an impact intellectually and socially.
Undertaking unfunded research might be the only way of seeing through a commitment to projects that would benefit communities and small groups where very little or no funding was available.
The constraints of externally-funded research
Being creative and intellectually-driven, pursuing the ‘thrill of ideas’ and ‘just finding out’ to make an impact through a contribution to knowledge can feel stifled by the goal-oriented agendas of funding agencies. Externally funded research seems trammelled by intentions of creating potential impact relevant to government and business needs, while university institutional preoccupations appear to be focused as much on revenue-generation as they are generating knowledge. The space to be flexible and independent in the practice of research outside of the funding system, its deadlines and requirements, is a valued aspect of carrying out unfunded research.
Impact beyond revenue and rankings
But the flexibility and independence in being self-driven does not mean that social usefulness and what is called non-academic user interests are left aside. Indeed, undertaking unfunded research might be the only way of seeing through a commitment to projects that would benefit communities and small groups where very little or no funding was available. Examples from people I spoke to include helping a local community garden project for people with mental health issues and a pilot service for a homeless charity each to demonstrate the impacts that they had on people’s lives, and supporting small archaeological societies map out potential dig sites.
Revaluing unfunded research
The strong commitment to knowledge generation that conducting unfunded research requires is, however, tempered by its undervaluation within the university sector. There is a paucity of structural supports and resources available compared with those that might fall into place where external grant income is gained. Prestige is associated with bringing in research funding institutionally, which in turn can be a decisive factor in institutional promotion application decisions. The outputs from unfunded research can boost an individual’s CV and publication profile, but career progression can be delayed or blocked without evidence of significant or sustained external research income generation.
It seems that some of the unfunded research was considered of such benefit by the academic’s University that it was in the process of being written up to form impact case studies to submit to the REF.
Yet unfunded research clearly does make significant quality and impact contributions to institutions. It feeds into teaching and delivery of training courses. It enhances the University’s academic environment and reputation, with presentations at international conferences. Producing high-quality unfunded research can contribute to national and international university league tables, with 3* and 4* publications for the upcoming Research Excellence Framework (REF). Indeed, it seems that some of the unfunded research was considered of such benefit by the academic’s University that it was in the process of being written up to form impact case studies to submit to the REF. So the University potentially will be reaping the financial rewards of what gets considered a ‘budget deficit’ activity that is underwritten by personal resources of time and money.
Unfunded research is regarded as part of being an academic, an intrinsic feature of employment and vocation – ‘it’s what we do’ was a phrase that repeated over and again by the people I spoke to. Universities could start to think of unfunded research in that way too. They could, for example, acknowledge the contribution that it makes to their institutional reputation and, via REF submissions, to their income. Allocating institutional time and support resources would be a start.
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I enjoyed your article very much, I agree with you in relation to self funded research. I am, or rather see myself a sociologist without any formal position or post, that was taken away a number of years ago due to some poor health at an important time. To this day I find myself seeing life from a sociologist viewpoint, I see the issues of modern society in how I am viewed as an older person with a long term illness, and how that has limited my employment and further academic study.
I have an interest in pressure group politics and the disenfranchisement of young people, especially within Extinction Rebellion.
I have an interest in the failure of our educational system to engage with all young people , especially those excluded from school and furthermore the gifts and talents they possess outside of school.
I have an interest in Medical training and how at last the intake of women has moved on, however I am interested in the gradual deskilling of General practice as medicine for women with children and other family roles.
I have further interests in new areas of sociology, ie Astrosociology, concerned with space and futures travels as a multi disciplined approach to life as we look beyond Earth towards the solar system.
I find the real issue is attempting to enroll for doctoral studies, that my ideas..as an qualitative researcher as dismissed.
I would welcome your thoughts on this.
Thanks for your comment Jon. You have a wide range of interests! I am sorry to hear that you are finding it difficult to enrol for doctoral studies. There are supervisors in various fields who are happy to accept doctoral students with good ideas and proposals that they wish to pursue through qualitative research. If you settle on a topic and see which academics are publishing in that field and whose work you admire, that is a good starting point. Good luck.
Very good article. Unfunded (self-funded) research is a large and important part of research generally. Recent developments, however, are militating against bringing the value of such research to the community. The advent of open access for journals, although great in many ways, is a challenge: namely the cost for a publication is not ‘counted in the grant’, and the ‘unfunded researcher’ has to find yet more money to get their results ‘out there’. This also applies to deposition of their data in a repository, now, admirably, a requirement in most cases. In addition to the work-flow mentioned here (do the trial for nothing then submit the grant), unfunded research is often quite different in format from funded research (some of which you have touched on). I am thinking of the modest, but important long-term research that falls outside 3-5 year research grant time-lines. Although this article is largely about the employed academic or researcher it is worth thinking about the value of non-traditional research by others (including non-funded researchers), and how that is valued, in what seems to be an increasingly ‘ivory tower’ knowledge society.
I have often thought that if I am in position to leave a small endowment when I die, it would be an award for the “best unfunded research project”. I am annoyed how difficult it is to secure funding and how long it takes – especially during covid when we are teaching to save our jobs. I am annoyed about how much weight universities place on ‘grant capture’, even if you are in the humanities or don’t need it, when actually funding is an INPUT to research, not an OUTPUT, and does not of itself contribute to knowledge. If we celebrate unfunded research, this would be a useful complement to the ‘resume of failures’ movement, that a few brave souls [myself included] joined by posting a cv of failed projects, to show junior colleagues and others that is quite normal to fail. My list of failed grant applications runs into the millions!
“The advent of open access for journals, although great in many ways, is a challenge: namely the cost for a publication is not ‘counted in the grant’, and the ‘unfunded researcher’ has to find yet more money to get their results ‘out there’.”
Not so. see my journal listing for a few fields. Most of these journals are free, and reputable. https://simonbatterbury.wordpress.com/2015/10/25/list-of-decent-open-access-journals/
And the philosophy behind this. http://dx.doi.org/10.7340/anuac2239-625X-4215
Excellent piece, with lots of links to co-production, where citizen scientists and public contributors with lived experience find it hard to find acceptance in the conventional world of funding bids, data collection, academic authorship and publication. Recognising unfunded research also opens the door to a wider constituency of participants in research production.
Very interesting. I’d like to know what your definition of unfunded research is, though. I’m sort of assuming you mean all the research that we do not funded by bodies external to the university. An academic lucky enough to be on a standard teaching and research contract (in social science or humantities at least) would typically be expected to spend 30 percent of his or her time on research, regardless of external funding. So it isn’t ‘unfunded’ as far as the researcher is concerned, and to the extent that it produces published work is almost certainly valued by institutions — in that it feeds their REF returns and lots of the other metric-based stuff. Research sabbaticals too are explicitly funded by the universities for the purpose of carrying out ‘unfunded’ research, although developing grant applications and so on is certainly not discouraged as one of the uses of this time.
So I wonder what kind of roles your participants were in and in which scientific fields, as there would seem to be considerably heterogeneity of experience across the sector.
IRBs exempt self funded researchers from paying ethical review fees. this will go a long way in cushioning their tight budgets. But the question is what documentation can researchers provide so that IRBs can vet whether its a self funded research?
Hi Lee. Thanks for your comment. I’m interested to know more about IRB payment. In the UK HE institutional Ethics Committees don’t charge applications for ethical approval. Can you explain the system that you’re referring to please? Ros
Sometimes unfunded research takes place because certain kinds of research just don’t fit funder fancies.