Hefce recruits top names to oversee 2008 research exercise. Anna Fazackerley reports
Fifteen "big name" research figures were this week appointed as chairs of the main panels in the new-look research assessment exercise, bringing some fresh kudos to the beleaguered system.
The chairs, who will oversee and advise the detailed assessment done by individual subject panels, are all professors who are considered to be leading lights in their particular disciplines.
They include six women and one professor from a new university. Oxford and Cambridge universities and Imperial College London each have two academics on the list.
Representing the UK's four funding bodies, the Higher Education Funding Council for England presented the appointments as the first step in taking the 2008 RAE forward and confronting problems encountered in past RAEs.
Rama Thirunamachandran, director of research at Hefce, said: "The quality of the candidates, including people from research councils and the Royal Society, gives a very positive message."
He stressed that busy academics at the top of their profession would not give up their time to these positions if they did not feel the RAE was important.
Hefce hopes to move the research community away from the tactical gameplaying associated with former RAEs.
Dr Thirunamachandran said: "My message to the academic community is don't distort the research you do just because you think panel X or panel Y will behave in a particular way. Please continue to do the research you want to do and we will make sure the RAE is sufficiently flexible to assess the quality of your work."
Liz Allen, national official for higher education at lecturers' union Natfhe, said: "Although we welcome the steps that have been taken to try and improve the RAE, we believe it is time for the sector and its funders to be brave and scrap the entire exercise."
The 2008 RAE will involve two tiers of panels for the first time. The 15 main panels will each oversee a group of sub-panels, covering the full range of academic research in related subject areas.
The system should allow a more consistent assessment of research across subjects. The aim is that if the profile of any one subject within a group looks strikingly different - scoring either especially high or low - the main panel chair will approach the sub-panel for an explanation.
One of the new chairs, Hazel Genn, professor of socio-legal studies at University College London, said she was attracted to the cross-disciplinary nature of the role.
Professor Genn backed Hefce's call for a move away from gameplaying. "There has been scope for tactical behaviour. My advice to colleagues has always been just do the research you want to do to the best of your ability," she said.
Sir John Beringer, another new chair and pro vice-chancellor at Bristol University, said: "I'm not sure the structure we have now should last for ever, but the RAE has been very helpful. The main panel idea is a good one."
Vicki Bruce, panel chair in charge of psychology, education and sports-related studies, said: "Some aspects of the exercise are a natural evolution. But some, such as the approach to grading, will be quite different."