State Funding of Research and the Narrowing of Economics in the United Kingdom

A column written by Frederic S. Lee. Published in Global Labour Column, October 2, 2013

In 1986, the United Kingdom instituted an exercise through which the allocation of state research funds to universities and their departments was based on the quality of the research they produced. While the official justification for the exercise was the need to be selective in the allocation of limited research funds, the non-talked about agenda behind the exercise was to reduce the number of research universities to a manageable number and to ensure that these elite universities conducted research and carried out teaching that was consistent with the interests of the economic and political elite which control the state. Consequently the ensuing research selectivity exercise known as the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) was and is popular with the Tories, New Labour, and anybody else who believes that the State should have quasi-direct and complete control over the thinking and research activities of its citizens.

Most academics initially thought the exercise would be a fair way of allocating state research funding when the state decided to reduce its commitment to higher education. However, in some disciplines, such as economics, it became evident by the mid-1990s that the exercise was also being used to cleanse economic departments of heterodox economic ideas that did not conform to mainstream (neoclassical) economic theory and with the neoliberal, pro-market policies based on the theory and which the state approved of. But the precise manner through which the cleansing process operated was not clearly understood. The rest of the article deals with the cleansing process, its consequences for UK economics, and what can be done about it.