Britain does some of the best engineering research in the world, despite comparatively poor pay for engineering academics and research workers, a top-level study has concluded.
An international panel of engineering experts led by Sir David Davies, Royal Academy of Engineering president, was impressed with the quality of research work after visiting a cross-section of British universities and studying data from industrial and academic sources.
But they have warned that this may not continue unless there is a review of engineering postgraduate studentships. In a report on the study released this week by the Academy and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the panel says there could be a collapse in the UK's ability to recruit and retain quality engineering researchers unless their pay is improved.
The panel also had reservations about the relevance of the research assessment exercise in measuring the quality of engineering research. The RAE is steering research away from engineering problems with industrial applications towards projects more suited to academic journals.
The report argues: "Engineering research is fundamentally different from curiosity-driven basic science research ... it is driven by direct relevance to applications for wealth creation and quality of life."
The panel suggests "more realistic" criteria should be adopted to assess the quality of engineering research. This might mean awarding universities points for such things as innovative designs, sustained collaboration with industry, patents leading to licences, or spin-off venture companies.
The report adds: "We suspect that if revised quality assessment criteria operated in a wider context the process could well change the value and ranking of departments lower down the RAE scale."