Select Committee on Science and Technology Second Report


Accuracy of the RAE results

    1.  With such a spectacular increase in RAE ratings, it is legitimate to ask whether the improvement is a true reflection of the state of UK academic research and its performance over the last five years. The evidence we have received suggests that most in the science and education communities agree with HEFCE's assertion that it is largely a reflection of reality (paragraph 22).

    2.  There is concern about the non-inclusion of researchers. ... Funding should reflect the actual amount of research and its quality over the whole department and not those deemed active. Universities should have no incentive to omit any researchers (paragraph 24).

    3.  There is concern that by moving researchers between UoAs or splitting and merging departments universities can improve ratings without any improvement in quality (paragraph 25).

    4.  There is concern that transfers between institutions can distort the RAE results (paragraph 27).

    5.  There are concerns about the way the panels operated and their membership (paragraph 28).

    6.  We recommend that, in any future RAE, HEFCE provide panel members with more effective administrative support. Ensuring the validity of the results is money well spent (paragraph 29).

    7.  With the above reservations, we accept the widespread view that the RAE ratings reflect an improvement in UK higher education research (paragraph 31).

Effects of the RAE

    8.  Most of the evidence we have received has suggested that the RAE has had a broadly beneficial effect on research in the UK (paragraph 32).

    9.  We have heard of concerns that the RAE has imposed large costs and bureaucracy on universities, hampered teaching, distorted research practice, led to neglect of universities' other activities and severely damaged academics' morale (paragraph 33).

    10.  If HEFCE believes in the value of the RAE, it should establish clearly how much it costs and show why it is worth it. We recommend that, as part of its review of the RAE, HEFCE establish with accuracy the cost of RAE 2001 and publish costings and an explanation of how these were calculated (paragraph 33).

    11.  The RAE has undoubtedly brought benefits but it has also caused collateral damage. It has damaged staff careers and it has distracted universities from their teaching, community and economic development roles. Higher education should encourage excellence in all these areas, not just in research. Universities should be assessed on a balanced score-card (paragraph 59).

Research practice

    12.  Some of the most outstanding achievements in UK science have resulted from long periods of research with no outputs ... We are concerned that the RAE process may discourage long-term research of a highly speculative nature and stifle scientific breakthroughs (paragraph 37).

    13.  While we accept that publication practice is somewhat different in the humanities, we believe that the shorter period of assessment for the sciences discriminates against scientists involved in long-term research. We suggest that seven years would be a more reasonable period of assessment for the sciences as well as the humanities (paragraph 38).

    14.  We recommend that HEFCE ensure that its quality assessment does not discourage or disadvantage interdisciplinary research. Such research offers some of the most fertile ground for innovation and discovery (paragraph 39).

    15.  We recommend that HEFCE keep unit boundaries under review to ensure that subjects of increasing importance are fairly assessed (paragraph 40).

Morale and careers

    16.  It is clear that the RAE has had a negative effect on university staff morale. Any future research assessment mechanism must be able to give a fair appraisal of the research without tempting universities to continue the divisive and demoralising practice of excluding some academics from the process (paragraph 41).

    17.  We welcome HEFCE's imminent research project into women in higher education research and recommend that it should analyse RAE data as part of this study. It is vital that women's research careers are not further impeded (paragraph 42).

National priorities

    18.  The RAE may not be the primary cause of departmental closures [in science and engineering] but we suspect that it is a contributory factor. Nationally important research that makes a major contribution to the economy must not be destroyed because of trends in student demand (paragraph 44).

    19.  In our view, it is better to address national research priorities through a funding mechanism rather than by tinkering with the assessment process. HEFCE should protect or enhance key research areas by changing the cost weightings for some UoAs or by introducing ring­fenced funding (paragraph 45).

Neglect of teaching and other university activities

    20.  The RAE, and the funding decisions based on it, create incentives for universities that could lead to them neglecting other areas of their functions: teaching; community involvement; commercial activity; and research of local or regional significance. This may have major implications for the nature of UK universities (paragraph 46).

    21.  It is not for the RAE to reward teaching, but there must be a counter-incentive to promote good teaching and encourage good teachers. We believe that there must be financial incentives for improving the quality of teaching but that the burden and the problems of measuring teaching quality are such that funding based on it should be a last resort. HEFCE and universities must work together to provide well-paid and prestigious career positions for academics who are primarily teachers (paragraph 49).

    22.  We are supportive of high-quality teaching in a high-quality research environment and find it hard to see how this can be reconciled with the concept of a teaching-only university (paragraph 51).

    23.  If the best researchers are concentrated in a small number of departments, we risk losing the next generation of scientists. At a time when the Government is concerned about the supply of scientists in the economy, HEFCE should be encouraging high-quality research wherever there is teaching (paragraph 52).

    24.  We are concerned that the pressures placed on academics, not least through the RAE, make community involvement less likely (paragraph 53).

Knowledge transfer

    25.  We recommend that, in its review of the RAE, HEFCE consider the impact of the RAE on knowledge transfer activity, and investigate whether panels have accorded due status to industrial research outputs. The Government wishes to encourage industrial collaboration and the commercialisation of research and HEFCE must ensure that the RAE does not undermine this (paragraph 54).

    26.  The Government may need to intervene to ensure that research excellence is represented in the regions of the UK, perhaps by encouraging regional networks in important subjects (paragraph 55).

    27.  Research into matters of local importance can be vital to communities and the economy. If the RAE cannot recognise such work a mechanism needs to be identified that will (paragraph 56).

    28.  HEFCE should monitor levels of investment in infrastructure carefully and if necessary introduce a recurrent funding stream (paragraph 57).

Funding the RAE

    29.  We believe that HEFCE was right to use RAE 2001 [to determine the research funding for 2003-03]: if you have a selective mechanism for funding it should reflect the current state of research. But we take issue with the way the cake was cut (paragraph 69).

    30.  We recommend that the Government introduce and resource a seedcorn fund to stimulate the development of research in new departments, as part of a strategic framework for research funding (paragraph 71).

    31.  We recommend that HEFCE introduce a more sophisticated weighting system which accurately reflects the high costs of research in certain scientific subjects (paragraph 73).


    32.  In their evidence to us, HEFCE seemed to believe that any side effects of the RAE were unfortunate and somehow nothing to do with them. If HEFCE has a mechanism for selective research funding then it must take responsibility for any distortions it causes (paragraph 58).

    33.  While HEFCE cannot be blamed for the level of funding that is available for higher education research, it must bear primary responsibility for the way the RAE funding deficit has been handled (paragraph 74).

    34.  Some responsibility for the funding decisions must lie with the DfES and with the Minister for Lifelong Learning and Higher Education. .... The RAE and the funding decisions based on it have major repercussions for the higher education system. We find it hard to believe that the Minister is prepared to delegate all of that power to an unelected quango. It cannot be in the public interest that she should do so (paragraph 75).

    35.  The DfES must also bear responsibility for the financial dilemma which HEFCE has been facing. ... We appreciate that the Government has a number of priorities in education, but it must not lose sight of the need to maintain and develop an excellent research base. We welcome the Minister's commitment to fight for a generous settlement for higher education in the Spending Review (paragraph 76).

    36.  We fully accept that higher education is the responsibility of DfES, not of DTI, but we would suggest that the Cabinet Minister for Science should take a closer interest in the RAE and in the funding of higher education research, since it is vitally important to the future of science and technology in the UK (paragraph 77).


    37.  Discussions about the mechanism for the allocation for research funding are largely meaningless unless the under-funding of university research is addressed. ... There is a strong case for a substantial increase in the HE research budget. This should not be less than the £200 million a year required to fund RAE 2001 using the formula employed until recently and to restore the project funding/QR ratio to 1993-94 levels. Borne in mind should be the chronic under-funding in university research for much longer than this (paragraph 78).

    38.  We welcome the science and research cross-cutting review and trust that it will spell out clearly for the Treasury the value of science and engineering research and its present parlous state of under-funding ... UK university research is already among the best in the world without the funding it deserves. The Spending Review 2000 brought great benefits for the Science Budget. Now has come the time to put right the imbalance in the dual support system by delivering a significant increase in funding for higher education research (paragraph 79).

Options for the future

    39.  It is generally agreed that the RAE has achieved all it can in its present form. The question is whether we abandon it completely or whether it could form part of a broader funding mechanism for higher education research (paragraph 80).

    40.  We are not persuaded that research assessment should rely entirely on success in obtaining Research Council grants (paragraph 82).

    41.  It is generally agreed that there is a future for the RAE, but not in its current form. We need an RAE with a lighter touch (paragraph 83).

    42.  We recommend that the RAE should take place every six years, with interim assessment as requested by developing departments or as considered necessary by HEFCE (paragraph 84).

    43.  We believe that the RAE should continue but only as a part of a broader higher education research funding strategy in which its side effects and disadvantages are offset by other mechanisms. We suggest the following model for discussion. HEFCE's research budget could be divided into four sections -

      (1)  Funding excellence. Top-rated departments would be exempted from the formal research assessment process if they wish [and funded on their ability to attract external funding].

      (2)  Promoting new centres of excellence. Other departments could continue to take part in a research assessment process.

      (3)  Developing research capacity. Departments taking part in the research assessment process could apply for development money through a bidding process and would be assessed by subject panels based upon the RAE UoAs.

      (4)  Fostering external collaborative research. This fund would support the indirect costs of institutions attracting external project funding [for departments entering the formal assessment process] (paragraph 86).

    44.  This model of research funding could operate within a broader system of higher education funding which provides incentives for excellence in all areas of universities' activities: teaching, community and economic involvement as well as research. The aim should be to produce a coherent funding system, with a small number of flexible funds (paragraph 88).

    45.  No doubt the Funding Councils' review of the RAE will consider a range of options for the future. We await its outcome with great interest, since it will have important implications for the future of science and technology in the UK. An effective funding mechanism for research infrastructure will be crucial if we are to maintain and enhance the UK's research excellence and exploit it successfully. It is essential that DfES, the Funding Councils, the devolved administrations, OST and the Research Councils work closely together to ensure that the funding to the science base is coherent and adequate to maintain the quality of UK research. We shall follow developments closely and, if necessary, report again to the House (paragraph 89).

Debate in the House of Commons

    46.  We suggest the following motion for debate by the House:

      "That this House commends the higher education sector for the marked improvement in research quality demonstrated by the Research Assessment Exercise 2001; takes note of the conclusions and recommendations in the Second Report of the Science and Technology Committee on the Research Assessment Exercise (HC 507); notes the concerns reflected in that Report on the impact of the RAE on research priorities and on universities' other functions; acknowledges the vital contribution which higher education research in science and technology makes to society and to the economy; and calls on the Government to fund the RAE results fully in the forthcoming Spending Review." (paragraph 90).

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