January 17, 1997

In the start of a debate about the pros and cons of a superleague of universities in the United Kingdom, Frank Webster stated that the "1996 research assessment exercise demonstrated nothing if not that research excellence is concentrated in a small number of elite universities". However, while a very small number of universities do very well across the board, excellence in individual subject areas may be distributed in a different way, since many universities contain research excellence.

Many of those whom the Physiological Society represents presented their work for assessment under the physiology unit, where 45 per cent of staff were judged to be in departments awarded 5 or 5-star grades, and under pharmacology, where 53 per cent of staff are in departments awarded 5 or 5-star. However 44 per cent of these internationally competitive researchers are outside Cambridge, Oxford, London and those universities which seem to be pushing hardest for a premier league (THES, December , 1996). The proportion rises to 50 per cent if one considers only researchers whose departments were rated 5-star.

Fortunately for scientific research in the UK neither the Higher Education Funding Council for England nor the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals favours the creation of a superleague. Webster's notion that scientific laboratories, whose capital base and personnel will have been developed over years of commitment, can easily be transferred to a cluster of research universities "if staff so desire" beggars belief. Much likelier, their effort would have to be abandoned.

P. R. Stanfield Honorary secretary, The Physiological Society, Department of cell physiology and pharmacology University of Leicester

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