No competition in research game 1

April 25, 2003

It is always useful to identify the problem before deciding the optimal solution and, while Sir Gareth Roberts and the Higher Education Funding Council for England ("Revamped RAE to start a year early", THES, April 18) certainly attempt to address some fundamental difficulties in the research assessment exercise, they have missed the government message.

Quite simply, education secretary Charles Clarke is not willing to fund the result of anything so unpredictable as the outcome of a real competition: the point of 6* is not to improve the competition or to make the results more reliable; the point of 6* is to end the competition.

The white paper approach falls into the kind of tomfoolery over research strategy that so beset the Welsh Assembly only a few years before. It slipped on the false and oily logic that the RAE defines the top research institutions and was thus drawn to concentrating funding on the "demonstrated" best. Funding research only in Cardiff University was proposed.

The roar from Welsh academics reminded the assembly that this would mean abandoning more than two-thirds of the best researchers in Wales. The academics also pointed out that the ambition to improve knowledge transfer and exploitation, for the benefit of local and the national economies, is stillborn if knowledge creation is not the business of all higher education institutions. For, while regurgitation might serve for foundation degrees, industrial and commercial entrepreneurs look for new knowledge to give their business a cutting edge.

If the RAE offers no real competition and no real reward for the work and the genuine hardship created by managers, then we would do well to drop the entire game. We might even get back to the idea that research is undertaken primarily out of intellectual curiosity and the results published according to their importance and under a timetable governed by the nature of the project, rather than a wholly artificial agenda.

The past 15 years should have taught higher education managers that government funding for the RAE is as elusive as Kierkegaard's characterisation of Socrates: try to picture an elf wearing a ring that makes him invisible.

Andrew J. Morgan

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