Industry and users such as the National Health Service will play a greater role in assessing university research under plans announced this week.
The Confederation of British Industry and the Higher Education Funding Council for England are setting up a task group to better involve industry and users in the research assessment exercise.
Roger Needham, pro-vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge and head of the Microsoft laboratory at Cambridge, said: "I personally don't believe that there is any particular magic in being in industry. But if the academic community respects the industrialists involved, then that is fine."
The task group will examine how to ensure that quality is properly assessed in areas of research that are relevant to industry, according to its draft terms of reference. The group will also look at the nature of the assessment panel membership and identify how more industrial representatives could be appointed. Finally, it will consider how best to capture industrial views on the RAE and whether it would be appropriate to set up sub-panels for industrial representatives.
"As users, industry has a valid role to play in the assessment of research," said Rodney Eastwood, director of planning at Imperial College, London. However he expressed some concern over the role of industrialists in assessing blue-skies research. "The question is whether the individuals chosen will be able to recognise the value of fundamental research," he said.
John Butler, director of research at the University of Portsmouth, said:"I am keen for research users to be powerful on the RAE panels. I don't see why it follows that strong industrial scrutiny leads to the dumbing down of research. There are senior industrialists who are conscious of the need to protect basic research and would probably be advocates of basic research. And they don't have a hidden academic agenda."
HEFCE has also written to 300 professional, industrial and business organisations, asking them to nominate panel members for the next RAE. However, increasing the number of industrial panel members could be problematic, as the role is time-consuming and panel members are not paid. "Someone who is good and respected intellectually is of great value to those who employ him. Will a company send him away to sit on these panels?" asked Professor Needham.
HEFCE intends to appoint panel members this year and in 1999. They will meet in the spring, to consult their subject communities and agree assessment criteria.
The funding councils use the RAE to assess how much money each university receives for research. Panels assess 69 subject areas every four or five years; the next RAE takes place in 2001.