Return to the RAE

December 18, 1998

The past few issues of The THES have witnessed early signs of a return to obsessive concern with an oncoming research assessment exercise. Some of my time recently has been spent travelling, and it is interesting to see the contrast.

Over a glass of beer after a seminar, young academics in other countries tell you that they want to write an article that will change the face of their discipline. Young researchers in the United Kingdom, I notice, do not say this any more. Their goal is to write articles in particular journals. Most do not appear to think in terms of solving problems per se.

The RAE has encouraged the belief that output itself is success. It has also discouraged risk-taking. Yet citation indexes reveal that 99 per cent of published research makes no tangible impact. Most of us will struggle to write one paper or book that will be influential in our grandchildren's time. A typical Nobel prize description talks only about one or two contributions by a laureate, and those often seemed at their time of publication to be too unusual to be easily evaluated. When we say "University X has a good department", we actually mean that there are a few people there who have done influential things. I do not see these commonsense points represented in existing procedures. I believe the next generation's values are being corroded by the RAEs as currently designed.

Andrew Oswald

Professor of economics University of Warwick

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