Research Intelligence: Is it worth it in the long run?

Research council plans to track outcomes for ten years are receiving a mixed reaction, says Zoe Corbyn

February 4, 2010

It is one of the most ambitious plans yet to make academics accountable to the taxpayer, but what exactly will the new "research outcomes project" mean for scholars - and how will the data be used in the future?

When news broke last April that the research councils were considering tracking the outputs of grant winners, the "Big Brother-style" plan received a mixed response.

Some derided it as yet another layer of bureaucracy, whereas others welcomed it as a way of showcasing research impact.

Last month, after consultations with universities, the councils quietly announced that the project - a harmonised system for gathering outcomes and outputs of their grants - will almost certainly go ahead.

They are now working with focus groups to establish final specifications for the system, which is expected to cost about £600,000 to implement.

The plan is to choose a preferred supplier by this summer, to pilot it in the summer of 2011, and to roll it out later the same year.

"The business case is very compelling," said Sue Smart, head of performance and evaluation for the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, who is overseeing the project. "We are all aware of the increasing imperative to demonstrate clearly the way our investments in research benefit society and the economy ... We want to work with the research community to tell the story of success."

The system will record the outcomes achieved by individual academics, allowing the councils to gather data on an ongoing basis for the first time.

Importantly, it will also give them a single powerful system they can then draw on to demonstrate collective impacts across a field.

While the full list of the outcomes that will be included has not yet been finalised, the publications produced and the economic and social impacts achieved will be at its core.

The plan is to initially get a simple system up and running, and later expand it with other outcomes, such as the partnerships achieved and any further research funding secured.

The system will replace the final reports that researchers are currently required to produce three months after their grants finish. Because these are prepared shortly after a grant expires, they often fail to record the full range of outputs, some of which can take years to materialise.

The new system will also merge existing mechanisms for logging outputs that some research councils currently operate.

To minimise the burden on individuals, it will aim to take data from institutions' own internal research management systems.

Dr Smart said: "Increasingly, institutions are gathering all this information themselves, so it makes absolute sense for us to work with them so they provide the data rather than the researcher."

But it is also anticipated that academics will want to add extra data as appropriate.

Current thinking is that they would be able to add outcomes up to ten years after a particular project had concluded.

"It won't be a case of 'you have to do this' - and if researchers have nothing else to add then that is fine," Dr Smart said. "But we envisage they will want to add extra data to tell the world of their success."

Got impact?

As to how the system will be used to determine future grants, Dr Smart stressed that the aim was not to produce a tool to feed into the peer review process for individuals. There were already well-established ways of accounting for track record, she said. The project's primary intention is to develop a way of demonstrating impact.

One of two focus groups set up to develop the plan is looking at how the new system can be aligned with universities' own information management systems, while the other is working to ensure that the widest variety of impacts are incorporated.

But some researchers remain sceptical about the proposals.

Don Braben, a visiting professor at University College London, and James Ladyman, a professor of philosophy at the University of Bristol, are both vocal opponents of the Government's drive to measure and reward the wider impact of research.

Professor Braben said the new plan amounted to "yet more quango-cratic nonsense", while Professor Ladyman branded it "pointless and costly meddling".

He said the system would further overload researchers by forcing them to update the outputs of their research projects "for years after they have finished".

"No matter how bad the financial situation is, there always seems to be money for bureaucratic and administrative initiatives," he added.

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