Leader: Take a long-term view on research

May 13, 2005

Like other treadmills, the research assessment exercise is universally unpopular but hard to escape. The full impact of the reforms introduced for 2008 will become obvious only when the results - and the funding implications - have been announced. For all the dummy RAEs, teaching-only contracts and poaching from rivals, the changes of methodology and remaining imponderables are too extensive for any university to be certain of the outcome. But it seems inevitable that the tougher, four-tier rating scale  will leave even more universities dissatisfied with their lot.

Much as they would like to see the back of the RAE, however, most universities will not want to be saddled with the knock-on effects of these results in perpetuity. There are important strengths in the new-style RAE, including a sensible representation of non-academic "users" on the subject panels, but there is little doubt that research funding will be even more concentrated than it is today. Some would say that is essential if the UK is to succeed in expensive and highly competitive research fields, but there may be damaging consequences for the higher education system as a whole. And it is far from obvious that the level of concentration required in biotechnology or nuclear physics is equally appropriate in social work or the history of art.

These are just some of the reasons that, even three years in advance of the RAE, the future of research assessment will be one of the most important items in Bill Rammell's in-tray as Higher Education Minister. He may not take much convincing that it distorts research activity, wastes time and resources on a grand scale and stratifies the system to an undesirable extent. Any government will want to maintain the spur of competition in the allocation of research funds, but there are other ways of doing it - from reliance on the blunt instrument of citation indices to the more sophisticated reform of dual support advocated by the Royal Society. The die is cast for 2008, but Mr Rammell and Lord Sainsbury, as Science Minister, should be searching for consensus on a successor.

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