Pooling hailed as key to Scottish improvement

January 1, 2009

Scotland is celebrating an improved performance in the 2008 research assessment exercise.

In 2001, 10 per cent of Scottish submissions gained the top rating (which was then 5*). This time 15 per cent have won the highest score (compared with 17 per cent across the UK). More than 99.9 per cent of researchers work in disciplines in which there is at least some "world-leading" (4*) activity.

This week, many in the sector attributed the improvement to the decision of the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) to "pool" research efforts across individual institutions through collaboration.

The proportion of top-rated research has improved significantly in economics, physics, chemistry and some areas of engineering, which were among the first areas to win SFC support for pooling.

Economics was deliberately targeted because of its poor showing in the previous RAE, when it received no top ratings. It now has some 4* rated researchers in all six departments, in the universities of Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, St Andrews and Stirling.

And the Scottish Universities Physics Alliance, which links six universities, now has more 4* and 3* activity than the University of Cambridge. Physics at the University of St Andrews was ranked in equal second place with Cambridge and Nottingham, while the University of Edinburgh was sixth and the University of Glasgow equal seventh.

Physics at Heriot-Watt University has improved dramatically, rising to equal 15th alongside the universities of Oxford and Southampton.

David Gani, the SFC's director of research policy, said: "There has been a significant degree of restructuring in response to strategic research development grant investments, including research pooling. This has been very challenging for the sector, but it has responded superbly as is evidenced by its performance."

Nursing, midwifery and allied health professions, boosted by the SFC's strategic research development grant, have also done well, with 4* researchers in ten of 12 submissions.

There are also improvements in library and information management; drama, dance and performing arts; music; business and management; archaeology; and dentistry. Scotland has maintained its traditional strengths in biological sciences, computer science and informatics, agriculture, veterinary science, food science, and clinical and medical research.

Universities Scotland said the results offered hope for future prosperity. Convenor Anton Muscatelli, principal of Heriot-Watt, said: "As we try to work out what strengths we can build on when we rebuild our economy, none offers us the opportunities our world-class research does."

olga.wojtas@tsleducation.com.

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