Leader: Assessing the future

March 31, 2006

Now that the shock of the Budget statement on the research assessment exercise has subsided, its implications are beginning to be examined. John Sutherland casts a sceptical eye on some of them, on the assumption that change is inevitable. That is probably correct since the Treasury is not in the habit of commissioning reviews of this type without an end in view. And, if a simpler, cheaper system can do the same job, few tears will be shed for the RAE.

Australia, in devising an assessment system from scratch, appears to have decided that metrics will not adequately reflect its research strengths.

The UK review may well reach a similar conclusion for the arts and humanities, the social sciences and possibly some other subjects. But it will be surprising if the sciences and technology are spared. Given the normal pace of change in academic bureaucracy, it seemed that there would be plenty of time to make the necessary adjustments to ensure that metrics were not the blunt instrument that many feared. That would be far from certain, however, if the 2008 RAE were to be abandoned.

A head of steam is building up behind just that course of action, but it should be resisted. For all its faults, the RAE has lasted for 14 years and its successor may become even more established. With the current exercise already under way, it would be folly not to let it run its course. But that would also imply a decent interval - perhaps until 2012 - before the new methodology is employed. There would be little point in going to the effort and expense of completing this RAE if it did not shape research funding for a significant period.

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