Councils act to level research field

December 11, 1998

The funding councils are to modify the research assessment exercise yet again - this time to ensure that interdisciplinary research is fairly treated.

Half of university researchers think that the RAE inhibits interdisciplinary research, though a study for the councils found that there was no evidence of systematic bias.

A working group set up by the funding councils recommended this week that interdisciplinary researchers should be appointed as members of the RAE judging panels. An interim report produced by the working group stated that panels whose members work in one discipline award higher ratings to single-discipline research while interdisciplinary researchers rate interdisciplinary research more highly.

Panel members should also guard against inadvertently undermining interdisciplinary research, warned the working group. For example, some panels rate work published in interdisciplinary journals as inferior to that in publications devoted to a single subject. "Panels should explicitly state the criteria they will apply to interdisciplinary research," stated the report.

The working group accepted the suggestion that universities should flag up RAE submissions for interdisciplinary research, to alert panels to potential problems. "It is for institutions to decide on how to handle boundary criteria submissions," the report stated. "Cross-referred submissions should be assessed by at least one person from each panel."

But it rejected as impractical the recommendation that these areas should be highlighted some months before the submission date. It also recommended that feedback and reporting state explicitly how interdisciplinary research was treated.

The changes will be made in time for the next RAE, which will take place in 2001. The councils use the RAE to assess how much money each university receives for research. Panels of experts assess each of 69 subject areas every four to five years.

The working group surveyed 2,510 researchers and 243 panel members about interdisciplinary research and the RAE. About half said that the RAE was inhibiting interdisciplinary research.

But the group found that this was not the case. "There is no evidence of a systematic bias against interdisciplinary research," said a spokeswoman for the Higher Education Funding Council for England. "I think it is just a bit of folk legend really."

Industry collaboration, page 56

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