A cloud in blue skies

February 8, 2002

The funding of the RAE will undermine cutting-edge research, argue Harry Kroto and Tony Stace.

Now that the dust has settled on the results from the 2001 research assessment exercise, it is clear that the real losers are those research departments that worked so hard to maintain a grade 5.

The definition of grade 5 is for half the submission to be of international excellence and for virtually all of the remainder to be of national excellence. The definition of 5* appears to be the same but with a little added excellence. It is interesting that it is 5* and not 6.

A department does not maintain international excellence by standing still. The fact that a core of outstanding research faculty exists means that a department is vulnerable to poaching by other departments seeking to improve their grade, and to retirements.

Our experience at Sussex University is that for universities that expanded rapidly in the 1960s, faculty retirements in the period 1996-2001 can have a significant effect on the age profile and breadth of expertise within a department. The analogy with a Premier League football team is not inappropriate in these circumstances - maintaining research excellence requires the fostering and retention of good young faculty, particularly as there are some attractive transfer fees on offer.

Before 2001, there was a clear correlation in chemistry between size and RAE grade. Both Oxford and Cambridge universities have very large and very good chemistry departments and were rightly awarded 5*. Just below, at 5, was a clutch of excellent departments, none of which, because of their smaller size, could claim international status across the entire breadth of chemistry, but all of which still maintained a core of excellent research faculty.

Big was best, but slightly smaller could still be beautiful. Most significant for this latter group was the fact that grade 5 attracted a level of RAE income that, together with research grants, was sufficient to support an internationally competitive programme of research activities.

At Sussex, we went into the 2001 RAE assuming that the financial playing field would be reasonably level; there was certainly no indication that maintaining grade 5 (international excellence) would in any way jeopardise future funding. Based on the published RAE guidelines we had two choices. We were confident that we could maintain grade 5 with the submission of all chemistry faculty, including one Nobel prizewinner and several fellows of the Royal Society. Alternately, we could be more selective in our submission and gamble on achieving 5*. Gaining 5* is clearly good for morale, but then what about the expectations of mid-career faculty who may have been omitted? In terms of money, the outcomes seemed similar. However, had we gambled and lost, the result would have been a financial disaster. In the end we played safe - but now like a number of other strong research departments, such as those at Nottingham, Southampton and Birmingham universities, we will probably pay a price for just being excellent.

And what will that mean for the future of areas in which we specialise, such as nanoscience and nanotechnology studies - areas that have already won Britain a Nobel prize and that are springing up spontaneously everywhere? British universities excel in doing research that is one step away from being "useful". Nanotechnology, and its multidisciplinary approach, promises a paradigm shift in medical and electronic/civil engineering applications for the future. The new breed of nanochemist, for example, is creating molecules that serve specific functions. They could result in pocket supercomputers and construction materials of incredible strength. But without a strong research base Britain will be left behind.

The result of the RAE will mean that at Sussex cuts fall disproportionately on such blue-skies research. If this is replicated across the country, will the lesson learnt from the RAE mean that next time science departments will submit just their FRSs in order to gain 5*? Is that really what we want?

Sir Harry Kroto and Tony Stace are professors of chemistry at Sussex University. Kroto won the Nobel prize for chemistry in 1996.

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