RAE reaction: Shoot for the blue skies

The RAE and its ilk constrain academics, says Donald W. Braben, who invites institutions to emulate a UCL scheme that offers complete freedom to researchers pursuing groundbreaking discoveries

December 22, 2008

The results of the sixth research assessment exercise in 22 years were published on 18 December. These peer-review assessments, the biggest in the world, are possibly unique to these shores. This latest required a heroic effort in “paper” management.

More than 50,000 academics submitted their four “best” publications to yet further analysis and spent goodness knows how many hours agonising over the selections. But it seems that it was all worth it. The chairman of the Higher Education Funding Council for England said: “Although we cannot make a direct comparison with the previous exercise carried out in 2001, we can be confident that the results are consistent with other benchmarks indicating that the UK holds second place globally to the US in significant subject fields.”

It is intensely sad that our academics have been dragooned into allowing all this to happen. British academics and those working in similar institutions were once famed for their resistance to management, and the resultant harvest of unpredicted discoveries was prodigious.

Now apparently, it has been decided that freedom is too costly a commodity to be distributed widely. Researchers nowadays must persuade their peers in advance that their work will meet the needs of “users and beneficiaries” before it will be supported. Most applications fail. When they do get support, they must overcome other hurdles before their peers will allow publication of the results.

It does not end there. Eventually, another RAE of whatever stripe will lie in wait to second-guess them once more. Unsurprisingly, therefore, UK scientists with an idea that could open new fields are unlikely to find the freedom they need even though groundbreaking research is vital to future prosperity.

We can take pride in coming second to the US given that it spends much more on academic research than we do. But UK academics once excelled at leadership, as can be judged by the huge number of Nobel prizes (a truly independent means of assessing research on the global scale) UK-based scientists won before the advent of the new regimes.

I could fill this article with quotes from the UK great and good of the 1960s and 1970s who celebrated academic freedom and who were determined to preserve it. The world has moved on, of course. Universities, once largely autonomous institutions for the promotion of scholarship and education, are now progressively being made fit for purpose, but sadly, that purpose is no longer a matter for academics alone to work out.

To give only a few examples, student numbers have increased to almost 50 per cent of the cohort – a proportion more usually associated with average rather than excellent. Research funding in the UK has never been higher, but academic freedom has suffered serious erosion, and industry’s direct role has increased. Furthermore, the social burdens (as opposed to intellectual) being heaped on academics means that they must spend so much time meeting deadlines and generally fighting the fires that bureaucrats love to start that there is little time for calm contemplation. Academics never had to worry about shareholders, but that mythical being, the stakeholder, now dominates their lives. Despite their diversity, there is no shortage of people who not only claim to know what stakeholders want, but are also determined to ensure that academics provide it.

The US is not our only competitor. Many other countries are making giant strides in the competitiveness stakes, so we must find new ways of restoring our edge. We have made a modest start in this direction.

On 11 December, the provost of University College London announced that he would support a UCL-wide “Venture Research” scheme – an initiative based on proven methodology for stimulating transformative discoveries that would allow total freedom to any UCL researcher who could demonstrate that he or she really needs it. There are no deadlines, peer review or priorities.

This “antidote to the RAE”, as it has been called, is confined to UCL at present, but we are inviting other universities to consider participation. The probable cost to a vice-chancellor would be about £100,000 a year for every Venture Research team we find, and nothing otherwise. Bearing in mind that Venture Research might be comparable to that that might win a Nobel prize, for example, vice-chancellors might never have a better offer.

Donald Braben is honorary professor in the department of earth sciences, University College London. His latest book, Scientific Freedom: The Elixir of Civilization, was published earlier this year by Wiley.

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