RAE of hope for industry links

July 9, 1999

From 2001, industrially relevant research can be submitted in the RAE. Michael Kenward reports

Academic researchers who have toiled to produce papers in the run-up to the 2001 research assessment exercise could be in for a shock. The Higher Education Funding Council for England has quietly responded to pressure and is encouraging review panels to give more credit to research that is not published in journals.

Academics and their "customers" in industry have complained that in the past the RAE has in effect penalised work done with industry. Collaborative projects often deliver results other than the peer-reviewed papers. Patents can be one outcome, as can results that have to remain confidential for some time.

Industry also favours projects that bring together researchers from different departments, which previous RAEs have found difficult to assess.

The Confederation of British Industry and HEFCE set up a working group from industry, universities and government to review the treatment of industrially relevant research. They also wanted to discuss ways of involving more industrialists as assessors. As a result of the discussion, HEFCE has asked its panels of assessors to spell out in their terms of reference how they plan to acknowledge these factors.

"For 2001, products, processes, patents and even buildings can be included for assessment if they can be shown to demonstrate research quality," said Tim Bradshaw, senior policy adviser on technology and innovation at the CBI.

"We hope that the 2001 RAE will be fairer and more wide-ranging than past exercises," said Dr

Bradshaw. "The active involvement of industry should send a clear message that it is not just purely academic research that counts in the UK.

"Another welcome development is that commercially sensitive research can be included, although it will be for the submitting institutions to agree access rights with any industry or commercial partners."

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has also expressed concerns about the focus of the RAE. "We certainly pushed the point that we felt that due recognition had to be given to industrially relevant research and interdisciplinary research," said David Clark, director of engineering and science at the EPSRC.

With the higher education funding councils providing the other half of the dual-support system, the RAE has an important impact on the research councils. "We believe in an effective dual-support system," Dr Clark said, "but that dual-support system should be trying to achieve the same things. One of the things that we are trying to achieve is close industrial collaboration."

There are signs that HEFCE has taken the message on board. "We are not completely divorced from what happens at the coal-face," said David Pilsbury, head of research policy at HEFCE. However, he also points out that while the RAE should not discriminate against research that industry may have paid for, "relevance is not what we go by".

The council's guidance on submissions for RAE 2001 says: "Panels will give full recognition to work of direct relevance to the needs of commerce and industry, as well as to the public and voluntary sectors. All research, whether applied, basic or strategic, will be given equal weight: panels will be concerned only with the quality of the work submitted for review."

Excessive concentration on papers sends out the wrong messages to academics, said David Naylor, university liaison manager with British Steel. "It focuses universities too strongly on one aspect of their missions," he said. British Steel invests about Pounds 1 million a year in British universities and has more than 100 active research projects at any one time.

Emphasising papers and the performance of individual departments not only exaggerates the value of publishing, Dr Naylor said, it militates against research that brings together different departments or institutions.

Few academics are willing to be quoted on their concerns about the RAE. One professor in a department that achieved a five-star rating last time around and that has excellent links with industry said "there is almost an element of fear about the whole damn thing". He added: "It is important that they get it right, and get it right soon. We did well in the RAE last time, but since then we have been pushed more to interact with industry."

Multidisciplinary research is also high on the agenda for industry and the research councils. The need for researchers to tear down departmental barriers is a constant refrain in reports from learned societies and the government's Foresight programme, for example. Until now, the perception has been that the RAE gives little credit for such work.

Even on the more traditional yardsticks of excellence the RAE has its critics. It can stifle creativity, said Mike Dexter, chief executive of the Wellcome Trust. "The best science is often that which approaches the most difficult problems," Dr Dexter said. In the past, he added, institutions gave people the chance to pursue mad ideas, but they don't do that now because of the RAE.

Bringing more industrialists into the RAE is one way of increasing the weight attached to "relevant" research. "Previous RAEs did not seem to either take into account industrially sponsored work or welcome industrialists and users onto the assessment panels," said Chris Squire, university links manager with BNFL.

HEFCE is trying to make it easier for industrialists to become involved in the RAE. One deterrent is the amount of work that could be involved. Dr Pilsbury said that to reduce the workload the council has offered to make as much use as possible of IT and techniques such as video conferencing.

While participating in the RAE will take up time, perhaps 20 days in the year 2001, Dr Pilsbury points out that if industry wants to have an input, it will have to take part. Something like 150 names went forward to HEFCE from industry.

Dr Pilsbury added that it is up to the review panels to set out their own terms of reference. And with most panels yet to be announced, they will have their work cut out if they are to meet the planned timetable for putting these terms out for consultation. HEFCE's schedule calls for panels to circulate draft terms of reference during July. After consultation, they are due to publish final criteria in November.

The make-up of the panels is crucial to the next RAE. Dr Pilsbury expects about a quarter of the members of some panels to be drawn from industry. One reason for industry's reluctance to become involved, Dr Pilsbury said, is that "they wanted to know that their views would be taken into account".

As yet, the omens are not good. Few of the engineering and science panels have announced their make-up. The panel on mechanical, aeronautical and manufacturing engineering, where industry has good reason to be interested, draws just two of its 15 members from companies - Alec Dodd from Rolls-Royce and Ernest Shannon of ERA Technology.

The CBI highlighted clinical dentistry, maths and computer science as panels that lacked industrial nominees. The computer science panel consists mostly of academics, with the addition of people from the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency and the British Computer Society. Two of these also hold professorships.

For some, the real test will come when HEFCE announces who will be on the panels for such subjects as physics and chemistry. One physicist, who does not want to be named but who has close links with industry, has little expectation that assessment of his subject will pay much attention to working with industry.

Another researcher who wants to be anonymous and who is active in design research welcomes the moves to take collaboration with industry into account but warns that "it is probably too late" to have much effect on RAE 2001.

The message from the last RAE was that working through such programmes as the Teaching Company Scheme brought little credit. So, for the past few years, everyone has been on a paper chase.

"We play by the rules of the game," the researcher said. While he welcomes attempts to redress the balance, he warns that it is probably too late to have much impact on RAE 2001 beyond giving researchers the chance to put a spin on their submissions. "If you change the rules at the end of the day, it will not make a fundamental shift."

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