How should research be assessed? Gareth Roberts urges those who have an opinion to contact his review panel
Researchers, policy-makers and higher education managers face a collective challenge. We need to find the best method for assessing research that will meet the needs of the research community, the economy and society in the years ahead.
Last month, the UK higher education funding bodies launched an invitation to contribute to the review of research assessment. Put simply, we want all interested parties to share their views on how research assessment might work in future. The invitation is available at www.ra-review.ac.uk
I would urge everyone with strong views on the way in which research ought to be assessed to read the invitation, contribute to the debate and allow us to consider all constructive ideas. There is within government and the funding councils a greater receptiveness to change than at any time since the inception of the RAE.
One of the problems we face is getting beyond the preoccupation with the RAE. There is plenty of evidence to demonstrate that it has been good for research, that it has encouraged universities and colleges to be more self-critical and obliged them to behave more strategically. On the one hand, it has been successful in focusing the sector on the production of high-quality research. But, on the other hand, as it is frequently argued, there have been unintended consequences. The distortion of research priorities and distraction of universities from their teaching mission, from developing young researchers or from working with public services, business and the community are cited as disadvantages.
What is more, there is widespread agreement that the RAE is looking tired. After five iterations, some would argue that we have all become a bit too good at playing the system. Given that the RAE is an ageing process, it is surprising that no alternative has really captured the imagination of the academic community. Fierce critics of the exercise often suggest what amounts to relatively minor modifications of the system - a longer period between exercises, perhaps, or a change in the way panel members are appointed. Others make pertinent criticisms but fail to suggest alternatives. It is as if we are all too mesmerised by the RAE to see a way past it.
We now need a collective leap of thinking and imagination to take us beyond this preoccupation with the RAE to begin to identify some genuine alternative methods of assessment. We will use the responses to identify three or four possible approaches and then look at these in more detail. When we have finished, our reports will be available on the review website.
Any assessment mechanism will disturb the system it purports to evaluate. We will be careful to consider the likely impacts of the schemes we put forward for consideration.
We have made a couple of assumptions. The first is that the dual-support system will continue. The funding councils will, therefore, need a method of allocating funds selectively. Research assessment of some description will continue to be used for this purpose. The second assumption is that UK researchers will continue to need to compete, not merely with one another but with the best in the world. Research quality will therefore need to be assessed in terms of international standing.
Although this will not be easy, we recognise the need to develop a less burdensome assessment method that maintains the rigour of the old system.
It is important to realise that the review will not look at funding allocations. There is a simple reason for this. The RAE has covered the whole of the UK, and the funding councils are keen to continue assessing research together. Funding works differently in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The amount of funding available and the way it is distributed are relevant to the question of how we should assess research - if only because people may be willing to accept a greater burden of assessment if the rewards are greater.
Although funding and assessment are related, I do not agree with those who claim they are inseparable. When they allocate funds, the funding councils have to decide how to recognise the achievements of researchers in different institutions. The questions we have to answer when we consider assessment are much more intellectually exciting. What kinds of activity should we be assessing as research? What is excellence in research and how do we identify it? What is the correct balance between accountability and trust?
The review offers a challenge to the supporters and critics of the RAE. We want to have a wide range of views. I look forward to receiving your suggestions.
Sir Gareth Roberts, president of Wolfson College, Oxford, is chair of the Joint Funding Bodies' review of research assessment.