The Government has put a greater emphasis on evidence to improve policymaking - yet many departments are reducing their investment in research.
As part of its commitment to improve policymaking, in March the Government announced its plans for a new network of ‘what works’ evidence centres, responsible for gathering, assessing and sharing the “most robust evidence to inform policy and service delivery.” The Government claims that these evidence centres - from health and education, to crime and local economic growth - will “drive better decisions across £200 billion of public services.” The evidence centres are welcome, but this isn’t the whole picture. On their own, they represent a relativity small investment - for example, the What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth will have core funding of £1 million a year over an initial three year term, jointly funded by the ESRC (50 per cent), BIS, and DCLG (both 25 per cent).
Last week, the Economist suggested that the Government is showing a “worrying disregard for data”, noting the decisions by the Department for Education to abolish a survey on drinking, drug-taking and bullying among children, the Department for Communities and Local Government to scrap surveys on local services and the Citizenship Survey on community cohesion (something which generated significant discussion when it was announced in 2011), and the apparent desire to do away with the current census. (This follows the criticism made of many departments for their use and presentation of official statistics). So what is actually happening to government research?
The first thing to note is that, despite the Government’s commitment to ‘open data’, it’s not easy to find out what departments spend on research. The lack of common reporting across departments inhibits clear comparisons; sadly, it’s also not possible to search easily by department for research commissions on the Government’s Contracts Finder, due to the lack of meaningful categorisation and tagging. As a result, we’ve taken a look at the annual reports and accounts of the six government departments of most interest to us in social policy - but even then the actual spending allocated to research isn’t always clear.
During 2011-12 the DfE spent a total of £12.1 million on research and evaluation, including studies on the children’s workforce, providing improved support for families, and safeguarding children. Core department spending was £11.58 million - down from £24,72 million the year before. (It’s also worth noting however that the DfE has published an ‘Evidence and analytical review‘ suggesting research priorities for academic researchers.)
DWP spent £8.6 million on research and development in 2011-12, down from £21.7 million in 2010-11. Most of this (£7.1 million) was under ‘Programme costs’, with £1.5 million under ‘Administration costs’; all of it was in the wider ‘Departmental group’ of agencies rather than the core department.
The other point to note about the DWP is that there has been significant criticism of its contracts under the Work Programme, whereby detail is often hidden behind a cloak of ‘commercial in confidence’. Under such an approach, data on the effectiveness of interventions is hidden behind prime contractors who only have to report at a high level; making available more fine-grained data on performance within their supply chain is effectively the responsibility of these prime contractors (something we have written about before). Further, evaluations tend to be skewed towards how effective the commissioning model is rather than how the programme affects people.
DCLG is the only department of the six that breaks down its research spending into DEL and AME, and ‘Resource spending’ and ‘Capital spending’; it also (again uniquely) describes it as ’Research, Data and Trading Funds’, which isn’t further broken down, thus making a clearer picture of spending only on research impossible. In terms of Resource spending, DEL has increased to £34.4 million in 2011-12 (from £34.27 million in 2009-10), while AME has increased to £61.45 million from £31.19 million - but according to data from BIS (on a broader definition), CLG spent £16 million on ‘R&D’ in 2010-11 (the most recent statistics available), down almost 50 percent on the previous year.
DH is (unsurprisingly) by far the biggest spender on research among these departments. The department spent £952 million on research and development in 2011-12; of this £920 million was provided to the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR). Then there is the Health Research Authority (HRA), a newly formed NHS organisation established in December 2011 as a ‘Special Health Authority’, to ‘protect and promote the interests of patients and the public in health research’, which has a budget of £3.6 million.
The core Justice department spent £1.47 million on research and development under ‘Administration costs’ in 2011-12 (including the wider departmental group increases this total to £1.54 million), and £581,000 under ‘Programme costs’ (a total of £1.27 million including the wider departmental group). The administration spending was only marginally down from 2010-11, but the programme research spending has seen a marked decrease - from £2.04 million (core department) and £2.81 million (wider group) respectively.
No research spending was recorded in the Home Office’s accounts - although support for the analysis used in the Winsor Review (including reviewing the evidence base on performance related pay) and the establishment of the Organised Crime Research Virtual Network are listed under ‘Achievements’ in the accounts, and priorities for 2012-13 apparently include ‘supporting academic research on the carbon cost of crime’ (!). According to data from BIS, the Home Office spent £42 million on (a wider definition of) ‘R&D’ in 2010-11, a small decline on previous years and significantly down on the high of £83 million in 2005-6.
Of course, direct spending by government departments is not the only investment that government makes in research, for example funding for higher education research is mainly provided by HEFC and the UK research councils. But this too is decreasing; as recorded by the ONS, in 2011 the Government’s ‘in-house R&D expenditure’ decreased by 7%, while research councils’ R&D expenditure decreased by 11% to £1 billion in 2011.
From one perspective it’s unsurprising that research budgets have been cut when overall departmental budgets have been seriously squeezed; however, previous analysis of the cuts to research up to 2011 showed that they were ‘disproportionate’, exceeding overall departmental reductions. Further, research is such a tiny part of government expenditure overall that there is a strong case to protect it even in a time of cuts, especially since the Government as a whole is claiming to want to be more evidence-based.
The decline in many department’s support for research (both commissioned directly and in terms of academic research) also means a greater reliance for policy-relevant research on other actors, such as think tanks and charities, with the resulting risk that public policy is increasingly informed by more partisan or partial research - or in some cases, no research at all.