Beware the red herring in pursuit of excellence

April 11, 2003

The government's drive for critical mass in research overlooks many subtleties of innovation, argues Paul Wellings

Government plans to link research quality and critical mass need to be tested with care. How can we recognise "the critical mass of researchers" when different disciplines work in different ways, have radically different approaches to networks and exchange of ideas, and have very different demands for infrastructure and common resources?

We need to tease apart several ideas on scale. For example, are academic outputs better in larger departments, does organisational excellence scale with size, and does commercial prospectivity increase with size?

It makes sense to continue building and expanding on systems that have focused on disciplinary and departmental quality: the alternative favoured approach of labelling a very small number of universities as "world class" would merely reinforce the ossification of UK institutions.

So the government has asked the Higher Education Funding Council for England to identify the best 5* departments that have the critical mass of researchers as 6*. But, within each disciplinary area, successive research and teaching assessments have shown that academic quality exists in units of varied size and appears to be linked to internal cultures such as creating time for ideas to reach maturity and openness to novelty and debate. This might sound desperately old-fashioned but our great departments are those with robust academic standards, collegiality and forward-looking groups of staff seeking to position their activities at the cutting edge rather than continually defending baronial positions.

Our current validated measures of international research excellence - 5 and 5* departments - exist in more than 50 per cent of UK universities, with weak evidence to show that these are the larger departments within each discipline.

Some aspects of organisational excellence do scale with size. These can be hard to achieve, as they require an enthusiasm for business process, and the cash to invest in modern systems. Nevertheless, there are administrative efficiencies to be gained in larger units, although these might best be captured at faculty rather than departmental level.

Similarly, in departments working on strategic research problems (as opposed to basic research), there is the capacity to create ephemeral teams assembled to address market-specified problems.

Size might also be important in some disciplines, such as biotechnology and ICT, with expensive equipment needs, especially if research portfolios are market facing and strategic. The case is weaker for disciplines where academics work individually or in small teams, or for those that need access to a large international-standard research infrastructure. Here, modern IT tools can allow researchers to work in small departments while collaborating in massive international initiatives.

The argument in favour of critical mass within a single institution is flawed. Consider, for example, designing solutions to the world's water problems. A research team would need to draw on groups with complimentary skills and a range of disciplinary backgrounds.

It would be lovely to believe that commercial prospectivity increases in larger departments. Some managers share this belief when they push institutional mergers, driven by the idea that larger groups of (scientific) researchers can achieve efficiencies of scale in finding a route to market for their work. Sadly, this notion is not supported by the data from public institutions in the US. It is broadly true that more patents are produced by US universities with larger research expenditures.

However, this relationship is linear; there is no evidence for scale-related efficiency. More damning is the fact that data on licence income and company spin-off rates show no relationship to size.

Imperfections in these data sets suggest that we should examine the more obvious explanations. For example, commercial success must depend on the mix of disciplines contributing to the research portfolio, the nature of business practices and leadership at an institution and serendipity. All three might be more significant drivers than scale.

Given the evidence, the long-term drive in January's white paper to reward critical mass ahead of excellence seems to be built on weak foundations. If the motive is to create better returns on research investment, we might be better off with a policy that rewards collaboration between our excellent departments rather than driving a wedge between research-led departments through a mechanism of dubious analytical heritage.

Paul Wellings is vice-chancellor of Lancaster University.

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