A game that nobody can win

March 23, 2001

The Weakest Link not brutal enough for you? Imagine it crossed with the RAE, as Robin Flowerdew did.

Question Mistress (QM): Welcome to ... The Weakest Link !

Our contestants must work together to maximise their grade in the research assessment exercise, but they must cut out those individuals who are not research-active, who are spoiling the departmental profile. They must vote off I The Weakest Link!

In Round 1, contestants have five years to publish at least four articles in refereed journals. But you must publish your research, otherwise it won't count.

(First round)

You have published only 23 articles in refereed journals instead of your target of 32. Who is letting you down? Whose work is only of national, not international, quality? Who is ... the weakest link?

Voice-over: In that round, Dr Hartebeest was the strongest link, with four articles in top journals. The weakest link was Dr Lemur - although he wrote four articles, only one was published in time.

QM: It's time to reveal who you think isI the weakest link.

(Contestants vote)

Dr Muskrat, you call yourself an internationally recognised researcher. But you could manage only a monograph and three book chapters. Why Mrs Okapi?

Dr Muskrat: I just felt that she isn't productive enough, especially since her twins were born.

QM: Professor Aardvark, why Dr Lemur?

Professor Aardvark: He's too slow. He wants to think about his work instead of just publishing it.

QM: Dr Lemur, you are the weakest link. Goodbye.

In the next round, contestants must attract as much research grant money as possible. But who will hold them back? Who is the Grade 2 researcher stopping the department getting a higher RAE grade? Who isI the weakest link?

(Second round)

Another poor showing. With a target of £5 million research income, you have achieved a measly £1.8 million. Who can't get a research grant? Who is ... the weakest link?

Voice-over: Mr Vicuna was the strongest link, with four research grants totalling £800,000. Dr Wallaby had only one successful grant application. But the weakest link was Dr Muskrat, who had two grants of just £12,000 in total.

(Contestants vote)

QM: Dr Wolverine, what has Dr Wallaby done to upset you?

Dr Wolverine: Nothing. He was just unlucky with his research proposals.

QM: But Dr Wallaby wasn't the weakest link, was he, Dr Muskrat?

Dr Muskrat: Wasn't he? I got two grants and he got one. And, unlike Mr Vicuna, my research does not require expensive machines.

QM: Perhaps you are doing the wrong sort of research then, Dr Muskrat. You are the weakest link. Goodbye.

In the next round, contestants must attract as many research students as possible. Who will do most to build up the research community? Who will add nothing? Who is ... the weakest link?

(Third round)

Another disappointing round. Who is letting the department down? I urge you - ditch the dunce, dump the dead wood. It's time to vote off ... the weakest link.

Voice-over: Statistically, Dr Hartebeest is the strongest link, with the most research students. Professor Aardvark is the weakest -his only student dropped out.

(Contestants vote)

QM: Mrs Okapi, the draft RAE form says Dr Hartebeest is the strongest link - why vote for him?

Mrs Okapi: He may have the most research students, but he never has time to talk to them. They come to me or to Dr Wallaby to discuss their work.

QM: But none of that counts in the RAE submission. Dr Wolverine, why Professor Aardvark?

Dr Wolverine: Professor Aardvark helped build the department, but that is the past. We can't afford to carry somebody whose research profile is tailing off.

QM: Professor Aardvark, you are the weakest link. Goodbye.

(Several rounds pass.) Congratulations, Dr Wolverine. Your colleagues are gone, and you will not be dragged down by their dismal performance. You can go forward to the RAE expecting a really good rating. Unfortunately, you don't get much money with only one research-active scholar in the department. Goodbye.

Robin Flowerdew is professor of human geography, University of St Andrews.

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