The research assessment exercise results published today are a triumph - and a disaster. They are a triumph because they demonstrate the increasing excellence of research in United Kingdom universities. This year's results, which show that half of university research-active staff are working at an internationally competitive level, demonstrate what can be achieved when clever people are given clear criteria, a five-year planning horizon and a pot of gold worth £1 billion a year.
The government and the funding council should be gratified and impressed that universities have responded so effectively to the challenge. Since the last RAE, high-performing departments have consolidated their position and increased their output, while entrants who were new to research five years ago have improved, sometimes dramatically. Here is evidence of new growth, good management and high productivity, and all when more students have been enrolled and educated on diminishing resources.
So why disaster? Because the universities have succeeded so well that they have overwhelmed the system. Politicians, faced with a large bill for success, are tempted to downplay achievement instead of giving credit where it is due. Universities, trying to make the case for better funding on the grounds that they cannot attract and keep high-flying staff, have now to explain how they have nonetheless managed to produce so much excellent work.
For some weeks, the Whitehall denigration machine has been putting it about that improved scores are the result of games playing and grade inflation and that the purpose of the exercise - to identify the best departments so that research funding could be distributed more selectively - has been vitiated by so many top scores. Universities have certainly managed for success. High-flyers have been hired, distinguished people have been enlisted as visiting professors, and those less good at research have been moved to teaching-only jobs.
Some of the assessment panels - especially for smaller subjects - may have made sure that their discipline as a whole made a respectable showing. But the independent citation indices confirm, as Sir Howard Newby argues (right), that the improvement is real. A government that purports to want to foster excellence can ill afford to denigrate such achievement just because it is keen to avoid footing the bill or because it wants to create a more restricted set of research institutions. The danger now is that this year's success, which reveals pockets of excellence in a large number of places, is going to set universities at each others' throats as they fight over inadequate funding.
Today the English funding council must decide what to do. (Other councils may make different choices.) They will have before them models of various possible scenarios: fund only 5 and 5*; distribute the money on the same basis as before, with each grade getting less; continue to use the previous set of results in the hope of more money next year.
One thing is certain: without more money this will be the last research assessment exercise of its type. People cannot again be asked to undertake so much focused work only to be short-changed on payday. The remaining options will be to fund a small number of universities for research and relegate the rest, or to distribute research money in future by project not by institution. The former would be unattractive to all but the few privileged places. The latter would be unattractive to the funding council, which would probably lose control of the research part of the higher education grant. Both would blight the open research culture that has given rise to so much good work. It will be bitter fruit if this year's spectacular success kills the system that brought it about.