Research intelligence - Variety not the spice of Ref?

Academics worry that framework's subpanels lack gender, race and geographic diversity. Paul Jump reports

April 14, 2011

Credit: Homer Sykes/Alamy
'Surprising': if a subpanel of white English academics felt competent to judge literature from other cultural contexts

The recent announcement of the membership of the subpanels for the 2014 research excellence framework caused inevitable rumbles of discontent in some fields.

Some of the doubts centred on competence. Hispanists were particularly vocal about the lack of experience and perceived paucity of mainstream expertise among their three representatives on the modern languages and linguistics subpanel. Some speculated that in the selection process, academic considerations had been trumped by a concern to ensure a good gender and geographical spread among members.

But others are concerned instead that these criteria did not carry enough weight in their fields. Among them is Lord Norton of Louth, professor of government at the University of Hull, who expressed disappointment at the low number of women - five of 21 - on the politics and international studies subpanel.

"To have the confidence of their disciplines, subpanels need to be seen to reflect who makes them up. It is about the signal it sends out not just in gender terms but also in terms of which institutions (the subpanellists) are drawn from," he said.

Gary Craig, chair in community development and social justice at Durham University, expressed concern about the lack of researchers from ethnic minorities on the social work and social policy subpanel and members' perceived lack of expertise in race and ethnicity research.

He added that it was important to include people from non-white backgrounds on the subpanel, particularly in culturally sensitive disciplines.

"One would hardly imagine that the ethnicity of the researcher was a material issue in assessing the speed of protons in physics. But in English literature, it would be surprising if a subpanel comprised entirely of white English academics felt competent to judge the merits of literature which...emerged from other cultural contexts," he said.

Clinicians might also be capable of "more powerful" insights into ailments that disproportionately affect their own ethnic groups, Professor Craig added.

In a letter to the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which administers the Ref, he writes: "The UK population has a 12 per cent ethnic-minority population and that proportion will be much larger in the urban centres where most social policy (and) social work...research is undertaken. In this context...the panel should have included at least two or possibly even three minority ethnic researchers."

He argued that Hefce should intervene where necessary to ensure this happens. Subpanels themselves are also at liberty to co-opt extra members and Professor Craig has been promised that the social work and social policy subpanel will consider the issues he has raised at its first meeting.

Quotas 'not healthy'

But no one is in favour of quotas to deliver diversity. Athene Donald, professor of experimental physics at the University of Cambridge and the institution's gender-equality champion, said they would promote "the feeling that people may be being chosen for reasons other than their expertise and that isn't healthy".

Lord Norton agreed: "There is no checklist you can put against the subpanels, and you would expect some bias towards experienced people...the discipline can trust".

But he said it was important to scrutinise the appointment process - particularly the role of the nominating bodies. Among them is the Joint University Council Social Work Education Committee, which nominated candidates for the social work and social policy subpanel.

Research sub-committee chair Roger Smith, professor of social work research at De Montfort University, said the committee had sought expressions of interest from its entire membership. "This was, as far as possible, an inclusive process, and all the names received were put forward for consideration," he said.

Stuart Croft, professor of international security at the University of Warwick, is president of the British International Studies Association (Bisa), which nominated candidates for the politics and international studies subpanel.

He said there were two women among its nine nominees, but this merely reflected the gender imbalance at the subject's senior levels.

Professor Croft said it was important to encourage researchers from underrepresented groups, and he had been able to have "a number" of exchanges, particularly with female candidates, about how their CVs "might be developed to look stronger" for future Refs.

He said Bisa had also kept in mind Hefce instructions that nominees should not be put forward "as representatives of certain groups", but that the subpanels should "reflect the diversity of the research community, including in terms of age, gender, ethnic origin, scope and focus of their home institution, and geographical location".

Graeme Rosenberg, Hefce's Ref manager, said "due regard" had been given to "equality and diversity considerations" in the selection of subpanel candidates.

"We are collecting equal opportunities information from panel members and will publish an analysis of this in due course," he said.

But Professor Craig remained unimpressed. "This is something I have argued about with Hefce for four research assessment exercises, yet nothing changes," he said.

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