Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the UK Life Sciences Committee

1.  Do the results represent a genuine improvement in research performance?

  UKLSC believes that the results do represent a genuine improvement in the quality of the research submissions, and this is the view of two of our committee members who actually served on different RAE panels and saw the evidence and experienced the assessment process at first hand.

  It is clear that there is a large amount of excellent research of national and international standard being carried out in UK universities, which must be funded adequately.

  Universities have utilised the funding secured in the previous RAE to improve the quality of their research, and also used their earlier experiences of the RAE process to maximise their chances of success. The improvement in grades has arisen in part from institutions focusing resources strategically on areas of research in which they can do well, and from improving the way that they manage academic staff. It is now considered reasonable to identify fully research active staff and to distinguish them from staff who have a large teaching commitment, and to manage their activities in different ways. This policy of developing individuals' strengths would be expected to promote high quality research and to reduce the full-time-equivalent research staff submitted to the RAE. However, for strategic reasons some departments may have taken this further by being selective in the choice of "research-active staff" included in submissions. Not all UKLSC members are content with the way that the RAE is driving the evolution of two categories of university staff—"research-active" and "teaching-active", which they consider to be detrimental in the long term. They argue that researchers who do not teach may become poor communicators, and teachers who do no research may fall behind as subjects progress and lack the experience to train new students for a research career. For the policy of managing academic staff according to their individual skills to be successful it will require improved university career structures to recognise and reward excellence in teaching as well as research.

  There is some concern about the high level of fragmentation of work in the Life Sciences between panels, which the cross-referral process (which might not be used equally by all panels) could not fully address. This may have led to differences in methodology and even in standards being applied to comparable research. The review by HEFCE of the operation of RAE 2001 will need to assess how effective the umbrella panel concept was in helping to avoid such anomalies.

  An unfortunate knock-on effect of strategies intended to maximise research performance for the RAE is that activities not considered to be important for the RAE are discouraged. It has, for example, become more difficult to recruit people to serve on the committees of learned societies, take on editorships, or to write reviews. This may be considered not to be in the broader interests of science.

  UKLSC would support the arguments presented by Sir Howard Newby, Chief Executive of HEFCE, for believing that the improvement in grades is genuine (Research Fortnight, 19 December 2001, p 17). In particular:

    —  The RAE process was transparent and open, with umbrella panels intended to ensure consistency in grade allocation between related panels;

    —  International experts were employed to validate the highest grades awarded;

    —  Citation analyses are consistent with improved international recognition of British science in the period between the two most recent RAE exercises.

2.  What is the best way forward?

  In a submission to HEFCE's review of research policy and funding made in late 1999 UKLSC reported that views were fairly evenly divided between continuing with an RAE based on the present system, or moving to some simpler formula that did not require an extensive evaluation exercise. The RAE was accepted reluctantly as the fairest and most rigorous system available (although some would question whether it would withstand a thorough cost-benefit analysis), and for this reason many people thought it justified the cost in time and money. One problem arising from the government refusing to provide additional money to HEFCE for 2002-03 to fund the improved grades in RAE 2001 is that people will think that the effort is not worthwhile. As was pointed out by the Science Policy Research Unit (Sussex) the whole ethos of the RAE—that if a department improves its research it will receive more funding—is under threat.

  HEFCE and other organisations with clout must present a strong argument to the government's Spending Review for additional money to be made available to HEFCE to enable it to fund fully departments for their performance in RAE 2001 for the remaining four years of the assessment cycle. The case can clearly be made from a position of strength and success. For 2002-3 HEFCE's intention to maintain the unit of resource for 5* departments, while providing a safety net to tide over departments graded 3b and higher is probably the best compromise. The algorithm adopted for 2002-03 should not be continued in future years since the consensus view of the science community is that the present degree of funding selectivity is about right, whereas the 2002-03 arrangement will increase selectivity.

  The present provision of research infrastructure support is inadequate. Schemes such as the Joint Infrastructure Fund helped to address a backlog of infrastructure defects, but have been insufficient to meet demand. The overheads provided by research council and EU research grants do not cover the real cost of research, and in the life sciences the failure of the Wellcome Trust to provide an economic overhead exacerbates the problem. For the longer term the Higher Education sector may need to start thinking more seriously how much research infrastructure government funding can maintain in different universities. Sir Martin Harris (Vice-Chancellor, Manchester University) has spoken recently of neighbouring universities needing to come together in a "federal university" with shared facilities and infrastructure where appropriate in order to avoid duplication (eg Times Higher Education Supplement, 4 January 2002).

3.  What are alternative strategies for allocating higher education research funding?

  UKLSC reinforces the view expressed in the earlier HEFCE submission that the dual support system should be maintained. There will continue to be a need for research performance to be assessed. The five-year cycle is seen by most people to be about right: a shorter cycle would give insufficient time to make changes, a longer cycle would risk relaxation of performance. However, some UKLSC members argue that now universities have been through several RAE cycles they have focused their research strategies and management and the cycle could usefully be extended to seven years. This would encourage more speculative research and risk taking. On balance UKLSC would prefer a simpler system of assessment than the current form of the RAE, but there is no real consensus among members on what this should be.

  The two methods mentioned most frequently are basing the funding allocation for research infrastructure support on the total research income from all sources, and basing it on the quality of published work, for example using the impact factors of selected papers:

    —  The former method would benefit larger departments with leading researchers bringing in major grants; ie it would reward success and help to support truly internationally competitive research. Since grant applications are subject to intensive peer review it would also satisfy the requirement that funding should go to groups performing research recognised to be good. On the other hand infrastructure funding could be seen to follow research that is in vogue for which it may be easier to command grants, and more expensive research. Work in novel, speculative areas would be penalised. Even within biology the different level of resources required for work in different disciplines seriously hampers the usefulness of a simple income-based formula.

    —  An important argument for funding on the basis of the quality of published work is that it recognises directly the quality of research output. The difficulty, however, is that simple publication parameters are notoriously unreliable indicators of quality. In the biology arena, for instance, work of comparable quality at the chemical/physical end of biology and in a vogue area of cell biology published in journals of similar international repute would gain markedly different citation scores and impact factors. Impact factors also differ markedly between the different disciplines encompassed in higher education research. Finally, in the Life Sciences, high impact journals tend to be American. There is already concern that the emphasis in the current RAE on impact factors causes problems for the journals published by the UK learned societies, internationally respected though they are.

January 2002

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