RAE 2008: How to get a clean bill of health (life and medical sciences)

July 22, 2005

Contrary to fears in the science community, the size of a research team's grant cheques is unlikely to have a heavy impact on the outcome of its research rating in 2008, writes Anna Fazackerley.

Institutions across the country have been scrutinising scientific researchers' grant incomes in preparation for the next RAE.

But while research income will be assessed under the "research environment" heading, it will not carry undue weight in the biological and medical sciences.

Robert Stout, chairman of Panel B, which covers epidemiology, neuroscience and community research, said: "Research income will be important, but we won't be judging it on a formulaic basis."

He stressed that panel chairs were aware that there was a great deal of money available in areas such as cancer research, but that areas such as mental health were much more poorly funded.

Professor Stout added: "In neuroscience, you might get a big grant to pay for a scanner, but in health services your research might not need costly equipment."

Sir John Beringer, chairman of Panel D, which includes the biological and agricultural sciences, agreed. "There are so many variables that it doesn't make sense to put too much emphasis on income," he said.

Applied & clinical research

The four panel chairs, who have been discussing issues to ensure consistency across the life and medical sciences, are keen to see that applied and clinical research receive a fair hearing.

It has long been a gripe of researchers doing more applied research that the RAE - and academia in general - is biased against them. Professor Stout said: "We have made a special effort to make it clear that clinical research will be judged on exactly the same quality criteria as other research."

All researchers are expected to submit four publications for consideration, but clinical academics who have spent long hours on the ward will be able to submit fewer, along with an explanation of their particular time pressures.

In addition, clinically qualified researchers who are still training can submit just two publications.

But there is a realisation that this may be a tricky balancing act.

Professor Beringer said: "When you are applying agenda-setting research, sometimes it can be of less high quality in terms of intrinsic intellectual merit - yet it may be very important for the public."

Maggie Pearson, chairwoman of Panel C, which includes dentistry, nursing, midwifery and allied health professions, said: "If people put in poor-quality research and do badly, then they will say we are not supporting them."

She added: "People might see it as a soft option, but high-quality practice-based research is difficult. That's the challenge, it strikes me.

We are damned if we do and damned if we don't, but we just have to rise to the challenge and do it. It's walking the tightrope of wanting to encourage (this type of research) and judge it properly."

However, the most crucial area of assessment will be research publications, with a weighting of either 70 per cent or 75 per cent. This will overshadow the more peripheral factors of esteem, such as the number of prizes that a researcher has won.

Professor Beringer explained: "What we are measuring is research after all," adding:"To me an indication of esteem is related to how popular an area is, how much money it has, therefore it is not easy to put too much emphasis on it."


Reaction: 'It needed more than just tinkering'

Many scientific researchers remain anxious and pessimistic about the next research assessment exercise despite attempts to sweep away past problems, writes Anna Fazackerley.

Ian Haines, director of the graduate school at London Metropolitan University and chair of the UK Deans of Science Committee, said: "The critical thing is the way the panels actually interpret the criteria. But I don't get a feeling at the moment that anyone thinks the final outcome will differ from previous rounds."

He stressed that researchers' pessimism was linked more to the system as a whole than to any individual instructions within the criteria.

"The acceptance that it is not working is much more about how much money there is. There is a feeling that the rules change on the financial side after the game is played," he added.

Peter Cotgreave, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, also doubted whether the criteria would do much to boost the RAE's image. He said that even scientists in the research-intensive universities that were likely to profit most from the exercise seemed sceptical.

He said: "Generally, everyone knows this is the last RAE. It is very hard to muster enthusiasm when we all know it is going because it hasn't worked well enough."

The British Medical Association, which has long voiced concerns about the impact of the RAE on the medical profession, reacted with disappointment to the new rules.

Michael Reiss, chair of the BMA's Medical Academic Staff Committee, raised concerns that the guidance about clinical research was not specific enough.

"There isn't an explicit understanding in the guidance - it has been left to doctors to make their own case. There isn't a level playing field here. You can't judge everybody by the standards of a full-time academic researcher."

He added: " We are very disappointed that they haven't grasped the opportunity for change. They needed to do more than just tinker with it."

But Rama Thirunamachandran, director of research at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said: "We are 110 per cent committed to ensuring the necessary reforms are implemented. I genuinely mean that."

He said the funding councils were serious about making life easier for young academics and for interdisciplinary and applied researchers, as well as considering equal opportunities. "It is all there in the criteria in black and white," he said. "I hope people will engage positively and constructively in the consultation process."


Panel A

Cardiovascular medicine; cancer studies; infection and immunology; other hospital-based clinical subjects; other laboratory-based clinical subjects.

  • Outputs: 75 per cent
  • Environment: 20 per cent
    The total percentage is split as follows:
    - Fellowships, studentships and research training: 5 per cent
    - Research income: 10 per cent
    - Strategy and infrastructure: 5 per cent
  • Esteem: 5 per cent

Panel B

Epidemiology and public health; health services research; primary care and other community-based clinical subjects; psychiatry, neuroscience and clinical psychology.

  • Outputs: 75 per cent
  • Environment: 20 per cent. In this, "due consideration" will be given to the following issues:
    - Level of research income
    - Source of research income
    - Data on research students and studentships
    - Details on the research structure, including culture and staffing - Impact or potential impact on health and health care
  • Esteem: 5 per cent

Panel C

Dentistry; nursing and midwifery; allied health professions and studies; pharmacy.

  • Outputs: 70 per cent
  • Environment: 25 per cent
  • Esteem: 5 per cent

Panel D

Biological sciences; pre-clinical and human biological sciences; agriculture, veterinary and food science.

  • Outputs: 75 per cent
  • Environment: 20 per cent
  • Esteem: 5 per cent

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