This exercise was all about excellence, and that's just what we got

By exerting steady upward pressure on quality, the RAE gave the UK much to celebrate and the world much to envy, says David Eastwood

December 18, 2008

Today the fat lady is singing her heart out. After four years of work by some 1,000 panel members considering more than 200,000 research outputs submitted by 2,344 departments in 159 universities and colleges, the results of the 2008 research assessment exercise are finally unveiled.

The 2008 results, which are presented in a more detailed and informative manner than previously, describe research success in a more rounded way and enable the identification and celebration of pockets of excellence as well as sustained success. There is good news for all kinds of institutions and the recognition of all kinds of excellent research: basic, applied and practice-based.

Amid the excitement of celebrating local achievements, we should not lose sight of an important story of national success: we enjoy the benefits of a well-established research base that stands among the world leaders in major disciplines. Statistics may be dulled by repetition, but for a country of our size to hold second place globally to the US in significant subject fields is no mean achievement, and we should not apologise for returning regularly to this leitmotiv.

I believe that our success is due to a combination of two factors: the unique way in which our research base is funded and organised, and the impact of successive RAEs across two decades. These are features that, by and large, the research systems of our competitor countries lack; and they are ones in which our rivals are now increasingly showing interest as they strive to catch up.

Dual support - with public funding for research flowing through two parallel streams, or three if we count the National Health Service - has played a major part in our success. Through the research councils and their resources, institutions are able to win funding for projects and programmes and the Government is able to steer the sector towards fields of research that are identified as a national priority.

Through the funds distributed by the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the other higher education funding bodies, institutions are able to build a strong, sustainable and dynamic research capacity across all disciplines, to pursue wholly new approaches and lines of inquiry, and maintain and build capacity in fields that may be a high priority in the next year or soon thereafter. By linking this funding stream to the RAE, we ensure that this funded capacity is of world-leading quality and that excellent research of all kinds is sustained wherever it may be carried out.

Having repeated the RAE at intervals, and by ensuring that its outcomes are publicly available and well respected, we maintain a steady upward pressure on quality. In return, some of the best researchers on the planet are given the freedom to undertake the inquiries that seem most promising to them, including in fields where other funders might prefer not to be the first movers.

As we prepare for the transition to the research excellence framework (REF), there can be no better time to reflect on the strengths of the old order and the strengths that we must retain in the new world.

Throughout its lifetime, the RAE has generally been accepted by the academic community as a fair, robust and rigorously conducted process. We should not ignore the criticisms that have been made, many of which have some force; but we know that the RAE has been a sound and effective means of producing quality judgments as well as a valuable management tool.

Central to this is the nature of the assessment process, which is driven primarily by expert review with the final judgments taken by panellists selected from within the research and user communities on the advice on their peers. The panels are well equipped to assess the full range of research that is submitted to them, including applied and multidisciplinary work, and their published criteria state clearly how this is to be done. Panel members will confirm that those criteria were followed, and in 2008 the two-tier panel structure has ensured that work in related disciplines is seen to be judged by similar standards.

The outcome of the latest RAE shows more clearly than ever that there is excellent research to be found across the system, with some work of world-leading quality in 150 of 159 higher education institutions, while 49 have some work of the highest quality in all their submissions. The excellence of the research base is enhanced by its diversity, which will be crucial in enabling it to continue reinventing itself to meet new challenges as these arise. The new season will bring its own new successes, and the show will go on.

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