The careers of promising young researchers could be blighted if the research assessment exercise is replaced with a metrics-based system for allocating university-wide research grants, a study published this week warns.
Distributing general block research grants to institutions on the basis of the external research grants won would make universities more dependent on established researchers with a record of bringing in cash, according to the first detailed study of what impact a metrics-based approach would have on the sector.
The report from the Higher Education Policy Institute comes in response to proposals to scrap the RAE unveiled last month by the Treasury. Bahram Bekhradnia, co-author of the report and director of Hepi, said: "If you think the RAE has impacted on behaviour, wait until you see metrics. If universities all go for more research council grants, it will mean a huge amount of wasted effort."
The report lists the disadvantages of distributing funding council research grants on the basis of metrics that include external research income, research council grants and citations of academic publications. Such a move would intensify competition for grants from the research councils, which already turn away 70 per cent of applications, create huge fluctuations in grants from one year to the next and alienate researchers in unfashionable fields.
The report says that young academics in particular could pay the price for reform. One of the concerns about the RAE is that it might make universities hesitate before recruiting young staff without a research record. But the report says: "If the block grant universities get from the funding councils depends on the value of research grants won, this danger will be even more present."
This concern is echoed in a study on the possible use of citations of journal articles using returns in the 2001 RAE by Michael Rowlinson, director of Queen Mary, University of London's School of Business and Management. Professor Rowlinson says that citation metrics would encourage academics to publish in fields with high citations such as medicine rather than concentrating on publishing in the most appropriate journal for their research.
"The data [from RAE 2001] show the huge amount of interdisciplinary work submitted to all panels, including science and engineering."
Later this month a government working group is expected to publish proposals on metrics for consultation. A Treasury spokesperson said there was no obvious reason why a metrics system should penalise young researchers. "There is a widely held view in the sector that this is precisely what the RAE does, by encouraging institutions to recruit mature staff with established research records."