Our advice to officials merits some form of academic recognition

The work of advising select committees is demanding and rigorous, and it deserves reward in the REF, argues Steven Barnett

July 24, 2008

Earlier this year, John Denham, the Universities Secretary, threw what he described as "a rock into the pond" by addressing the thorny issue of how to replace the outdated research assessment system.

Despite the Higher Education Funding Council for England's advanced plans for a new research excellence framework based on citations, research income and student numbers, Mr Denham's "rock" was to propose a fourth category: rewarding departments and academics who provide policy advice to Government and were, he said, undervalued.

My reaction at the time was a resounding "hear! hear!", but I was disqualified from responding publicly by my involvement in advising a parliamentary committee. For the past year, I and Mike Feintuck of the University of Hull were engaged as special advisers to the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications for its inquiry into media ownership. With the report now published, I can come out of the closet and offer Mr Denham a hearty and public pat on the back.

Mr Denham has identified a serious problem in higher education's growing love affair with metrics and, in particular, what we now like to call knowledge transfer. The principle of knowledge transfer is an excellent one: encourage the country's scholars to channel their thinking, analysis and insights into specialist areas that can be of direct benefit to the wider community.

If it is done properly, everyone benefits. Businesses and non-governmental organisations will become more productive and innovative as they incorporate ideas from the academy. And the universities benefit twice over: first, from an income boost to the relevant department and then from another income boost on the back of an RAE/REF score elevated by the very same knowledge-transfer projects. More cash and a better REF score: enough to bring a smile to any vice-chancellor's face.

Policy advice is just as time-consuming and offers the same benefits as all those other knowledge-transfer activities. Advising a select committee was fascinating, but it involves far more than writing a few e-mails and passing comment on a couple of documents. Advisers are intimately involved in the whole process from drawing up lists of suitable witnesses and drafting questions for evidence sessions to accompanying the committee on trips, surveying the relevant literature and helping to draft the final report.

On a personal level, it was unmissable - not many academics can claim to have met and posed questions to Rupert Murdoch. But in terms of reward and acknowledgement of the department's research input, the contribution is almost invisible: no citations and no money. Apart from a namecheck in the report, special advisers are non-persons because committee reports are the work of the chairman, signed off by the committee after due deliberation.

Constitutionally, that is the way it should be. But for universities that are enlightened enough to make space for this kind of knowledge transfer (and I am grateful that mine was), it is a double whammy. There is no juicy research contract and no metric to boost the research group's REF rating. In fact, it is a triple whammy: in the time spent generating questions for Lord Rothermere or trying to interpret the implications of a revised public interest test for a parliamentary committee, I could have been writing learned papers for refereed journals.

There are academics who advise civil servants, ministers, regulators and statutory bodies. Over the past 25 years, I have probably destroyed a small rainforest with written submissions or papers to ministers, select committees, public consultations, think-tanks, regulators and legislative committees. I know many other scholars who have done the same or more. None was allowable in the RAE, and there is apparently no appetite for change.

The problem is familiar: you cannot quantify policy advice because it is all too qualitative and fluffy. And it is perfectly true that you cannot apply metrics to an informal chat with the Secretary of State or to a side of briefing notes that summarises relevant journal references for a Permanent Secretary or to oral evidence in front of a select committee.

But with a bit of effort and political will, arrangements could be made to peer review, say, formal submissions to government departments or public consultations or legislative committees. We need some urgent creative thinking to find ways of recognising that the academy can and does make a significant contribution to a more informed policy environment, and of rewarding those departments that facilitate it. John Denham was absolutely right, and I hope he has some good policy advisers (preferably from the academy) to help him convince the funding council.

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