Clinical RAE inquiry

July 31, 1998

THE Higher Education Funding Council for England is setting up a working group to examine the particular problems associated with the research assessment exercise and clinical teaching and research, writes Alison Goddard.

Clinical academics have expressed serious concern over the RAE, which is used to determine how much money each university receives for research from the funding councils.

"If unmodified, the RAE would destroy medical schools," said Colin Smith, who chairs the British Medical Association's medical academic staff committee.

Clinical research is a special case because, unlike other researchers, clinical academics spend about half their time treating patients, according to Michael Powell, executive officer of the Council of Heads of Medical Schools. "The pressures on clinical academics are immense and have grown in the past few years as NHS trusts put ever more pressure on academics to teach and treat patients," he said. "Research gets pushed to one side."

The RAE is also too blunt an instrument in its present form to assess a subject like medicine with 20 to 30 specialities, say researchers. The working group will examine the possibility of using sub-panels beneath the existing clinical panels to address this concern, according to HEFCE.

The results of the assessment determine the allocation of much larger sums of money than in other subjects. Changes in ratings from one RAE to the next can therefore lead to very large shifts in funding, which can destabilise a university's medical research strategy.

One of the RAE's fiercest critics, Gareth Williams, professor of medicine at the University of Liverpool, described the RAE as "a dysfunctional juggernaut, lumbering on under its own momentum and threatening to crush research activity, careers and scientific integrity".

The working group is due to start its consultation in the autumn. It will examine the RAE alongside another, earlier group that was set up jointly by HEFCE and the Department of Health to consider the RAE and health services research.

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