Leader: Excluding the many for the sake of the few

February 2, 2007

The research assessment exercise is a competition in which Britain's cleverest people fight for hundreds of millions of pounds of public money.

So it is bound to be an unsettling experience for many of those involved.

Unhappiness is set to peak, as people who have been performing and publishing research for years find out that they are not to be entered in the RAE.

Stress will be at its lowest for researchers in the UK's newer and less well-funded institutions. Many of these universities will be glad of even a small amount of research funding via the RAE and will try to submit most staff members. Less enviable is the position of excluded staff at research-intensive universities. Even those who appreciate that their omission is a matter of tactics, and not a personal judgment of their work, are bound to feel bruised.

The first lesson is that efforts to abolish the game-playing that universities use to maximise their RAE performance are doomed. Changes to the RAE for 2008 have reduced incentives for tactical manoeuvring, but it cannot be prevented completely.

The tough decisions now being taken also show that universities are unclear about how to approach an assessment exercise that will affect their income until 2014. Some have decided to minimise the number of staff they submit to get the best possible rating and thus enhance their reputation. But if we are to have a squeeze on public funding in coming years, universities may regret taking steps that cut their income.

A department that achieves a high RAE score on the basis of the work of a small number of people will inevitably seem to lack quality in depth, while its few top researchers will attract the attention of rival universities in the UK and abroad. Another criterion that the 2008 RAE will examine is esteem - how well regarded a department is by others. A place with a few starry researchers and a large number of ill-regarded people in the background would be hard put to claim a reputation as a world leader.

Nor is it clear who should be omitted from a return to the RAE. Anyone with a string of highly cited papers in top journals has to be there. But what about people who show their excellence in other ways?

The guidelines for the next RAE say it will encourage interdisciplinary research by allowing its specialist panels to cross-refer material to each other. But many academics still doubt such work will be taken as seriously as research that advances a specific field of study. So the cautious move is to omit academics whose work takes an interdisciplinary approach.

However, the Government is placing increasing emphasis on such research for its economic and intellectual importance. Universities should be careful about playing down their interdisciplinary credentials with a cautious RAE submission.

Many funders increasingly define quality in terms of the impacts that research produces on a broad front. This can include commercial use, public engagement, policy impact and other criteria that range far beyond papers and citations. The RAE does acknowledge the possibility of recognising applied research, but universities may still be tempted to stress work that produces papers rather than has wider impacts.

Perhaps the far-sighted move would be to show an awareness that research is about more than advancing knowledge and will be defined even more broadly in coming years. Universities should recognise that diversity by representing their researchers as fully as possible in the RAE. The opposite approach, an exclusive tactic that risks demoralising and undermining staff, can hardly be regarded as forward-looking management, however carefully it is explained to staff.

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