'Big Brother'-style plan to track grant winners' output

Research councils assert 'right' to see evidence of what is produced with their cash. Zoë Corbyn writes

April 16, 2009

A "Big Brother"-style system is being planned to track precisely what academics produce with the money they win in grants, Times Higher Education has learnt.

In an approach likely to raise the hackles of scholars who already complain about the burdens of bureaucracy, academics could be required to log every outcome and output from research council-funded work.

The "evidence", whether publications, spin-offs or policy advice, would be used to examine the track record of researchers who seek funds in the future.

A business case for the proposal, known as the Outputs and Outcomes Collection (OOCs) Project, is due to be considered by Research Councils UK in July. If successful, the system could be rolled out as early as autumn 2010.

Leaked documents show that researchers would be required to continue submitting the information for at least five years after the completion date of a grant. Co-operation would probably be compulsory, with refuseniks barred from applying for future funding.

So far, the only people to have been consulted about the plans are university administrators, who have raised major concerns. These include practical issues about how outcomes and outputs could be tied to particular funds, and how academics could be made to update the database year after year.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England is expected to demand citation data under the research excellence framework, the system being developed to replace the research assessment exercise, and some universities already have IT systems in place that track the productivity of their researchers.

Administrators fear duplication with the new system, and have criticised a "lack of joined-up thinking" from research councils.

However, perhaps the biggest issue is how the OOCs information would be used in the future. One administrator added: "They need to be clear what this information is really going to be used for and why they want academics to put in time and effort to enter it."

Imperial College London is understood to have written to RCUK expressing its concerns on this point. "It is ... important to consider the wider implications of collecting impacts data which prove to be less robust than anticipated, especially since research councils will rely on this to judge relative success and inform decisions about future investment," it writes.

Ian Viney, head of evaluation at the Medical Research Council, who is leading the project on behalf of RCUK, said the councils had a "very strong right" to demand "evidenced facts about productivity".

The type of information that could be gathered from academics includes: publications arising from council-funded work; details of new products or inventions; influence on policy; collaborations with the private sector; engagement with the public and media; prizes and awards; and information about people trained with the money.

Dr Viney said RCUK wanted to work with universities that already had systems in place to minimise duplication. It was also in discussions with Hefce, he added.

He said that the system would initially be used to inform councils about which of their managed programmes were yielding the most significant advances, and that this could also save researchers time in the future.

"You could envisage a situation where researchers who apply for research council funding simply drag their track records across from the (OOCs) into their new applications," he said.

He added that researchers would be consulted, and that the OOCs would incorporate systems already in use by three different councils.

The Royal Society declined to comment on the proposal, saying only that it had not been made officially aware of it.


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