Subject leaders warn new system will focus on 'safe' areas, stifling emerging ideas, says Anthea Lipsett
Subject leaders have reacted angrily to sweeping reforms to the way university research is to be judged and funded.
Heads of learned societies and research groups warned this week that the new system would deepen divisions between rich and poor departments, siphon funding from crucial subject areas, damage emerging fields in favour of "safe" areas and leave researchers chasing "expensive" and "inefficient" research projects in favour of what is most promising.
Some also warned that the reforms, to be phased in from as early as 2009, would undermine preparations for the 2008 research assessment exercise.
But vice-chancellors broadly welcomed the changes, saying they would "lighten the bureaucratic burden" while maintaining the confidence of the sector.
In his Pre-Budget Report, Chancellor Gordon Brown last week confirmed that the 2008 RAE would go ahead; but shortly after it ends, the multibillion-pound research budget will be allocated largely on the basis of metrics.
The quality of science, technology, engineering and medical research, or Stem subjects, is to be based on measurements of research income, postgraduate numbers and bibliometrics - the number of times research is cited by other academics. Advisory panels will oversee the process.
Research in the arts, humanities, social sciences and maths will be judged by the same metrics weighted differently. They will also continue to be judged by a form of "light-touch" peer review.
From next spring, there will also be £60 million for universities to do research with business.
Ole Peterson, chair of the Royal Society's working group on the RAE, said:
"It is disappointing that peer review is not identified as core to evaluating the quality of research in science, engineering, technology and medicine."
He added that the seven advisory panels for the Stem subjects "appear to be merely tweaking formulas that will decide vital research funding".
Peter Main, director of education and science at the Institute of Physics, said: "Measuring inputs instead of outputs is bizarre." He said the system would discriminate against emerging research fields, which have fewer citations.
He added that basing funding on measurements of a department's existing research income from grants was "beyond belief". It would mean that "the more expensive and less efficient the research is, the more you should value it" and would lead people to work in "safe" areas only, he said.
Bill Brooks, chair of the Council of University Deans of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, said the decision to separate science subjects from the rest would be "detrimental to research and teaching in our disciplines".
Robert Stout, chair of the RAE's main Panel B (health-related research), believed the process could damage clinical and applied research. He said:
"I know of no metric that can assess the impact of research on the health service." He was concerned that funding based on metrics would be phased in too soon after the RAE. "We are putting a lot of effort into RAE 2008. Are we wasting our time?"
Simon McVeigh, pro warden (research and enterprise), Goldsmiths, University of London, wasJpleased with the outcome, but said: "I should have preferred to avoid a two-track approach that seems to fix a division between the two sectors."
Diana Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK, said: "A wide basket of metrics alongside light-touch peer review should lighten the bureaucratic burden but maintain focus on quality and the sector's confidence in the process."
PROPOSALS AT A GLANCE
- The 2008 research assessment exercise will go ahead. After that, research will be judged largely by metrics, but subjects will be treated differently
- In science, technology, engineering and medical (Stem) subjects, quality will be judged by metrics, including research income, research student numbers and citations
- In the Stem subjects, the first data will be collected in 2009-10 to inform funding, which will be phased in between September 2010 and August 2014
- In non-Stem subjects, the same metrics will be used alongside light-touch peer review of research outputs. Expert panels will meet in 2013-14 to inform funding from September 2014
- The Higher Education Funding Council for England is to finalise the detailed working of the systems and will report back in time for the 2007 Pre-Budget Report
- £60 million a year allocated for research with business, based on amount of research universities undertake with industry.
Bahram Bekhradnia, director of Hepi: 'These proposals are less bad than the original ones. The humanities have been saved, and there is a hint that peer review may be salvaged for the sciences. Hefce has bought some time. Let's hope it can make good use of it'
Michael Driscoll, v-c of Middlesex University and chair of CMU: 'The changes will limit the capacity of British universities to compete with China and other emerging economies'
Malcolm Grant, provost of UCL and chair of the Russell Group: 'Now we need to know what are the metrics, who will craft them and how they will be weighted against what perceived outcome'
Steve Smith, v-c of Exeter University and chair of the 1994 Group: 'We're glad RAE 2008 is going ahead and all disciplines will use the same metrics just weighted differently'
Peter Main, director of education and science, Institute of Physics: 'The funding gap between the best and worst funded departments will increase'
Alan Malcolm, chief executive of the Institute of Biology: 'Do we need it at all? The US is our only serious rival for science. Its research activity is funded by its Government at full economic cost and by industry with an element of profit built in'