The universities and science minister used his Gareth Roberts Science Policy Lecture this week to address a series of common anxieties voiced by researchers.
He cited “persuasive” complaints that research in some fields was distorted by the agendas of the top journals in which academics aspired to publish.
But he said that the research excellence framework, which will be used to allocate quality-related research funding from 2014, would judge outputs on the basis of “quality, quality, quality, not location, location, location”.
“Individual universities may have a different perspective on the journals you should have published in when it comes to promotion and recruitment, but the REF process makes no such judgements,” he said.
He suggested the “misunderstood” impact agenda was one way to encourage departments to “look beyond publication in a peer-reviewed journal as the be all and end all of academic life”.
And he defended the agenda against claims it would disadvantage frontier or arts and humanities research.
Nor would it require academics to become “crystal ball gazers” or inventers of “far-fetched accounts” that would distort their research and undermine their academic integrity.
“I do not want to see our researchers reduced to a grey utilitarian conformity. Intellectual curiosity and blue skies thinking are not going to be beaten out of you,” he said.
Meanwhile, the expanded REF panels and more collaboration between research councils would ensure multidisciplinary research did not go “unrewarded or unfunded”.
Mr Willetts denied that the government supported further research concentration “as an aim in itself”.
“The emphasis is on excellence wherever it exists. Funding awarded through the REF can and will support pockets of excellence, including lone scholars,” he said.
Nor did the research councils’ doctoral centres amount to “concentration on the sly”. “Critical mass” permitted multidisciplinary training and the leveraging of private investment and multidisciplinary education, but it was important to note that the research councils only funded around a quarter of UK doctoral students.
Mr Willetts announced that he would be co-hosting a meeting with Royal Society president Sir Paul Nurse to discuss the research career structure.
“Given the system cannot provide the number of senior academic positions desired by the pool of young researchers we have, should a long-term research career remain the automatic assumption for graduates entering PhD courses or postdoctoral positions? If not, how should we prepare them for life beyond academia?” he asked.
He also reassured researchers that the ban by the European Court of Justice earlier this week on patents for research involving embryonic stem cell research would not signal a decline in funding for such research.
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