Win-win situation helps UK research stay on top

December 14, 2001

The results of the 2001 research assessment exercise should be celebrated, says Howard Newby.

By any measure, the results of the 2001 research assessment exercise are impressive. They demonstrate substantial improvements in the quality of research since the previous exercise in 1996, and they reinforce a number of other indicators to show that the United Kingdom is at the forefront of world-class research.

The results reflect the huge efforts made by universities and colleges in managing their research, building on their strengths and encouraging work of the highest quality. More than half of research staff now work in departments that contain work of international excellence, compared with a third at the previous RAE. Everyone involved is to be congratulated.

The 2001 exercise has greater significance than in previous years because research is now widely recognised as a major driver of productivity, growth and quality of life in a modern society. Alongside teaching, carrying out quality research is critical in developing the highly skilled people the country needs to support the knowledge economy.

Critics will try to pour scorn on these improved results, claiming they are caused by grade inflation as institutions and academics have become proficient at playing the research assessment game. We can counter these assertions.

The main reason for carrying out the exercise is to provide evidence for allocating research funding selectively on the basis of quality. Institutions in England that gained 5 or 5* in 1996 have since received a total of £44 million in additional funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England. This, with substantial increases in money from other funders of research, has enabled them to increase the amount of world-class research by recruiting and investing in staff.

We are witnessing the results of a win-win situation. Institutions have used these resources strategically and concentrated on what they do best. This has led to a significant reduction in work being submitted that does not meet standards of national quality. The proportion of submissions in the lowest two grades fell from 24 per cent in 1996 to 6 per cent in 2001.

The 2001 RAE was more robust and transparent than previous exercises. Considerable improvements were made in the management and operation of the exercise, enabling us to place more reliance on the results. The benchmark standard of international excellence has been confirmed by nearly 300 inter-national experts. Chairs of assessment panels met to ensure consistency of assessment methods and marking standards across subjects in related areas. Representatives from industry, commerce and the professions have helped to ensure the quality of applied work properly recognised.

Great care has been taken to check the health of UK research. The findings are consistent with the RAE results. Last year, Hefce carried out a review of research that showed that on many measures UK researchers are among the best in the world. The UK ranks first in the world in terms of the numbers of publications and citations generated per million dollars spent on research. Bibliometric analysis shows that the proportion of UK entries in the annual top 1 per cent of most highly cited papers in the world was 11 per cent in 1995, and stood at 18 per cent in 2000.

Other funders of research, such as the research councils, industry, government departments and charities, are increasingly willing to invest in quality. Since 1996, the level of research funding from these sources has increased by 61 per cent for departments rated 4 or above. This additional income, amounting to £748 million over the past six years, has also led to a substantial growth in research activ-ity. The big challenge we now face is to build on this win-win situation and develop further the country's leading international position. Our bottom line is that we are committed to maintaining levels of funding for top-rated departments. But we also want to continue supporting the dynamism of the system by continuing to fund highly promising activities. The problem is one of timing. Given the substantial improvement in performance, we simply do not have sufficient resources to fund all departments at the current rates for the 2002-03 academic year. We may be in a better position to provide additional funds in 2003-04 following the outcome of the government's 2003 spending review.

The Hefce board will weigh the options at its meeting today. It is essential that we continue to support top-rated research without damaging other work that may benefit later from the 2003 spending review. We can take comfort from Hefce's letter of guidance from the Department for Education and Skills, which reaffirm that the government is committed to strengthening research excellence and supporting world-class research.

We at Hefce will do all we can to secure additional funds and to continue funding research in a way that enables universities and colleges to build on the improvements of the past five years.

Sir Howard Newby is chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

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