After exercise, time to reflect

February 12, 2009

With the final research assessment exercise over, Zoë Corbyn hears from key players about its merits, faults and lessons for shaping the Research Excellence Framework (REF). All spoke at the recent Universities UK conference "UK Research: The Changing Policy Landscape"


Sir Mark Walport, Director, the Wellcome Trust

Mark Walport is upfront about how the RAE has influenced his organisation's funding decisions.

"In my ten years, I cannot recall a single occasion on which a funding decision was based in any sense on an RAE score."

What matters, he argues, is the RAE's role in allocating funding rather than determining one university's position relative to another in a league table. And the system has a "chronic problem" in performing that key role, Sir Mark said.

As long as funding is driven by the volume of researchers submitted for assessment, universities face a "perverse incentive" to increase numbers at the expense of the infrastructure that is vital for quality research.

He also identified other problems in the system: its devaluation of teaching and reliance on a historical assessment of research.

"Education has taken a quite inappropriate beating ... But we want the best researchers to educate the best students," he said.

He is worried that, like the RAE, the REF will be backward-looking because it will use citations - the number of times an academic's work is cited by his or her peers - to assess quality.

"Do we really want a funding system that is based on what people were doing five years ago?" he asked.

As an alternative, he suggested developing a system that relies more on universities' external research income - that is, grants from research councils, charities and industry - to determine funding.

"It is absolutely crucial that we do not provide perverse incentives," he said.


Lord Rees, President The Royal Society

The president of the UK's national academy of science sees much he likes in the current system, and he believes that a lot of it should be preserved.

"I don't know if you have ever tried to explain the RAE to an American, but they are almost as bemused by it as they are by the rules of cricket," he said. "It is very hard to explain why we have it, but I think there are real strengths."

Lord Rees praised the dual nature of the system, in which money is available both from research councils and via quality-related research (QR) funding, and he highlighted the importance of the QR grant to physical science subjects, which do not attract private funding.

Although he would like research excellence to be as widely distributed as possible, he argues that PhD provision would benefit from being confined to larger providers. "We should leave open the possibility that anyone in any university can build up a world-class department if they have got the dynamism."

He also stressed the need to embrace the international dimension of research, to reduce the burden of the "audit culture" and to protect researchers' freedom.

"Traditionally a number of researchers have gone into academia because, in return for modest salaries, they have had a great deal of autonomy," he said. "We have to make sure that it remains so here, because otherwise we will lose our top-quality universities."


Malcolm Skingle, Director, external science and technology, GlaxoSmithKline

"There are many academics who still do not see the value of industrial research."

That is a key point that Malcolm Skingle draws from his analysis of the RAE. He argues that collaborative research, over and above licensing and contract research, is the most valuable of all to industry.

Because it is so beneficial, academics should be better rewarded for industrial engagement in the REF, he believes. "Academics will follow the money."

He suggested a radical proposal to dedicate about a fifth of the quality-related research (QR) funding block grant to industrial engagement.

"If universities are to be rewarded by making, say, 20 per cent of their QR funding dependent solely on their industrial engagement, it would make academics get off their backsides and seek to engage with industry."

Dr Skingle was also keen to stress other ways of encouraging industrial engagement.

He said that knowledge exchange through people - the movement of researchers back and forth between academia and industry - needs to be stepped up and that universities' policy of charging industry the full economic costs (FEC) of research must be re-evaluated because it is harmful.

"It is not all about FEC and how much you can screw industry for," he said.


Julia King, Vice-chancellor, Aston University

Julia King sings the praises of the RAE, but she believes that it has been "much more useful" to universities and their internal workings than it has been to industry or the public.

"There is a richness in the data outcomes, and the profiles have given us lots of useful information."

In the long term, she added, it would strengthen UK research.

For future assessment, she believes, universities should have to submit all their researchers and game-playing should be stamped out.

"I think we really ought to know about the depth and breadth when we are doing the assessment," she said. "We should not have top universities that submit only 70 per cent of their academic staff."

She stressed that it would be "enormously important" that the system continue to reward excellence and innovation when it is found in unexpected places.

"We have to have a system that allows different universities to get into the top ten," she said.

"Don't assume that what has been good in the past will always be good in the future."

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