Opaque methodology

April 2, 2009

The department of political science and international studies at the University of Birmingham had 5 per cent of its output rated "world leading" by the research assessment exercise. While this was disappointing and surprising, it is not, as your article suggested, none ("RAE panel hurt field by labelling it 'weak'", 26 March).

The department was unhappy with its score, especially given some of the people included in our submission and its overall strength. True, we would think that, but as your extensive website postings on the topic suggest, we are not alone in this view.

While nearly half the department was considered in the next highest rank, placing us among the leading research departments in the UK with strong international reputations, our relatively poor showing in the rank of "world leading" is difficult to understand. In short, why did we do so badly when other broadly similar departments did so well?

Of course, there may be very good reasons for the results, but it would be useful to know what they are. Given that we will have to live with the reputational and financial consequences of an inexplicable score for the next four to five years, it is not unreasonable to want to know the basis for success or failure in the exercise.

The key question is whether comparable departments with broadly similar staff profiles at the time of the RAE are really producing nine times as much world-leading work as we are. If the criteria for world-leading ratings are taken seriously, it is hard to imagine more than half a dozen academics in the entire country who would qualify, much less nearly half of some departments.

Personally speaking, I have been rapidly won over to the merits of metrics. Imperfect as this methodology may be, it has the great merit of being transparent, which is not something the present system can claim.

Mark Beeson, Head of the department of political science and international studies, University of Birmingham.

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