Plant science units uprooted for low-grade research yield

Critics lambast Imperial for 'severe misuse' of performance statistics. John Morgan reports

October 14, 2010

Imperial College London is to scrap its plant sciences provision after it was judged to be lagging behind on research income and citations - but critics have accused managers of using skewed data.

Imperial has approved plans to "dissolve" its plant and microbial sciences and cell biology and functional genomics sections as it restructures its department of life sciences. They will be replaced by an "integrative cell biology" unit, which the college believes will attract more research funding.

Twenty-eight academic jobs are affected. The staff will join the new unit only if they meet set standards on research performance.

Staff and student opponents said that the move will leave Imperial with no dedicated plant sciences research, damage study in key areas such as biofuels, and could mean that up to 44 PhD students will have to find new supervisors.

The restructuring plan was presented to Imperial's council in July by Ian Owens, head of the department of life sciences.

He writes that of the department's seven sections, the two for the axe are "substantially below that of the other cost centres with respect to both research competitiveness and financial performance".

His paper features graphs of each section's performance on research income and citations per head of staff. Plant and microbial sciences and cell biology and functional genomics come bottom.

During a consultation on the plans, critics argued that the mean average figures for the other sections were distorted by a handful of unusually high-performing researchers.

Imperial College Union's consultation response says the statistics "have been severely misused, where the graphs do not reflect normal distribution and do not contain error bars, therefore meaning that outliers are included and giving the wrong impression that plant and microbial sciences produces papers that are undercited".

A review panel considered the consultation and ruled that the plans should go ahead. It says in its report that it "recognises that there is variation in research performance among individuals within units", but finds that comparing units' average research performance "is a potentially useful way of predicting (their) long-term health".

The plant and microbial sciences group includes scientists who were transferred from Imperial's Wye campus in Kent in 2008, with some staff claiming the disruption hindered their research.

Times Higher Education asked Imperial whether the research-performance standards would be applied to other sections of the college.

A spokesman said the restructuring plan "came from the department of life sciences itself. The department set its own criteria for reviewing its cost centres' performance, based on the need to secure the department's long-term financial position and ensure it is internationally competitive in all areas of research activity."

The spokesman added that the restructuring "will not mark the end of plant sciences at Imperial", as "plant-oriented activities will be championed through a cross-college initiative".

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