Memorandum submitted by the Save British
1. SBS starts from the assumption that a
Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), in some form, is the price
the university research community has accepted for the continuation
of the dual support system of funding scientific research and
engineering research in academic institutions.
2. Because the bureaucracy associated with
the RAE is relatively low (compared, for example, with that associated
with the assessment of university teaching), and because the assessment
panels are generally composed of people who are active researchers
and who command the respect of most of the community, there is
much about the RAE that has been seen as positive.
3. In particular, the research community
can honestly claim that university researchers are as accountable
for the public money they receive as any other group in society.
4. Nevertheless, the RAE system has many
flaws, some of which are inherent in its ethos and processes,
others of which are side-effects of its operation over the past
decade and a half. The following comments inevitably concentrate
on the negative aspects of the RAE.
5. Although some may argue about the extent
to which it has worked, few people doubt that the RAE has been
instrumental in raising the average quality of research in UK
universities. A tail of unexciting research has been removed from
the national portfolio, as Heads of Department and Vice-Chancellors
have diverted resources into more successful areas.
6. However, the RAE may well have exacerbated
the effects of overall underfunding by further reducing the scope
for truly outstanding research, of the kind that only occurs very
rarely, and serendipitously. To express it starkly: would Galileo,
Newton, Darwin, Einstein or Watson and Crick have been allowed
to follow their brilliant hunches if the RAE had been looming,
or would they (in a modern world where few people have financial
independence) have been forced into safer areas more likely to
produce technical articles on a short-time scale?
7. SBS believes that the beginnings of this
problem predate the existence of the RAE, and are based in chronic
underfunding of the science base, but that the risk-averse culture
promoted by the RAE has made the situation worse.
8. Britain does not win as many Nobel Prizes
as it used to in science, with the average falling from one prize
(or share of a prize) per year between about 1940 and 1980, to
one prize (or share of a prize) every three or four years in the
1980s and 1990s.1 It is noticeable that the most recent UK winners
of a science Nobel Prize, Paul Nurse and Tim Hunt, have had their
long-term research funded through the charity sector, not through
the university sector.
9. Research funding via the Higher Education
Funding Councils should allow room for risky science. The current
system has vastly reduced the scope for such risk-taking.
A DYNAMIC RESEARCH
10. The science base has always relied on
a dynamic flow of people between institutions. The "premiere
league" of research universities needs to draw on talent
nurtured in laboratories lower down in the pecking order.
11. Last year, in announcing the research
merit awards that were part of the last Spending Review, the government
sought to compare the university research league with the Football
League and Premiere League, by referring to outstanding scientists
as the "David Beckhams of science". Leaving aside the
fact that Beckham is paid more for each 90-minute football match
than any university researcher earns in a year, the analogy had
12. The Football Premiere League relies
on players like Les Ferdinand (Queen's Park Rangers, then Newcastle,
then Tottenham Hotspurs), who began his career with the non-league
team Hayes. Without such lower-division clubs, the League and
Premiership would have no wider pool of talent from which to draw.
13. The same is clearly true of the research
premiere league. We cannot expect a small number of institutions
to thrive if we do not have a healthy sector of universities that
are not currently in the top ranks of research achievement, but
which have the potential to improve, or which train high quality
researchers who can then transfer to higher-rated institutions.
14. This system can only work if the dual
support funding system continues to invest in institutions that
have the potential for excellence even if they have no current
claim to be among the best. This means that the current funding
crisis, in which resources do not match the expectations of the
RAE results, cannot be solved by simply raising the level of attainment
needed to qualify for Funding Council investment. The departments
graded at 3 in the RAE are an essential part of a dynamic system,
just as the lower divisions are an essential part of the football
15. The system of funding by the UK public
funding authorities is already more selective than that of the
authorities in the USA.2 Indeed, the belief that the USA has a
more selective funding system was one of "several myths,"
debunked as part of the HEFCE's review of research policy; selectivity
has actually decreased in the USA in recent years.3
16. In its review of the research funding
the Higher Education Funding Council for England concluded that
in striking a balance between supporting existing excellence and
promoting dynamism, its current level of selectivity was about
right.4 SBS agrees. Selectivity of research funding is a good
thing, but you can have too much of a good thing.
17. The decline in the numbers of English
institutions entering the RAE in various subjects is shown in
the table below (the table does not include Scottish, Welsh or
Northern Irish institutions, although the patterns are unlikely
to be vastly different).
Numbers of institutions in England entering
the last three RAEs in various science and engineering subjects
||1996 RAE||2001 RAE
||37 per cent|
||33 per cent|
||22 per cent|
||15 per cent|
||39 per cent|
|Electrical & Electronic Engineering
||33||38 per cent
|Mechanical & Manufacturing Engineering
||33||25 per cent
|Metallurgy & Materials Science
||25||17 per cent
18. The table shows that selectivity has bitten hard.
In the last nine years, almost 40 per cent of Electronic and Electrical
Engineering Departments in England have closed, or decided no
longer to enter the RAE, and so have no hope of earning HEFCE
funding for their universities.
19. Despite the growth in importance of the biological
sciences, only about one half of English universities now claim
to perform research in the field.
20. There is no scope for further selectivity. It would
be a long-term disaster if the Funding Councils were to remove
all funding for departments rated at Grade 3 in the Assessment.
21. The definition of quality must include considerations
both of existing and of potential excellence.
22. Much concern about the RAE centres on the fact that
it concentrates effort into a limited range of activities. Although
the White Paper Excellence and Opportunity recognised that the
roughly 100 universities of the present day are much more diverse
in their aims and methods than the few universities of the past,
success in the RAE remains the only way for universities to earn
any substantial kind of unencumbered funds for investment.
23. Other activities, such as engaging with a wider public
audience, do not "earn points" in the RAE, and are not
just sidelined, but actively discouraged. It cannot be in the
wider public interest that Cambridge University Press found examples
of young researchers who had "received instructions not to
write books, and established professionals who are not willing
to risk the department dropping a grade [in the RAE] if they take
time out to write".5
24. Teaching is another area that many people believe
has suffered as a result of the RAE. Because universities do not
earn extra resources for being excellent at teaching, there is
more incentive for Heads of Department and Vice-Chancellors to
appoint academics who are excellent researchers than those who
are excellent lecturers, even at the expense of their teaching
25. The Dearing Inquiry found that, although 63 per cent
of university academics believed that good teaching should be
recognised and rewarded in appointments and promotions, only 3
per cent believed that this was, in fact, the case.6 There is
little doubt that the RAE has contributed to this experience.
26. This is not an inherent criticism of the RAE itself.
If excellence in other activities that are judged to be in the
public interest, such as knowledge transfer, teaching, and engaging
with the public, also attracted some financial reward (without
complex bidding processes), then university bosses would encourage
these activities with the same enthusiasm that they now encourage
27. One of the main criticisms of the RAE is that, a
decade and a half into its existence, it is beginning to lose
sight of one of its main purposes. Public investment must be used
in an accountable manner, and university researchers are no different
from other recipients of taxpayers' money in this regard. The
RAE therefore provides the valuable service of bringing a huge
degree of accountability to the research budgets of the Higher
Funding Education Funding Councils.
28. However, accountability is not the same thing as
control, and the RAE is coming to be seen as an instrument of
control. The White Paper Realising Our Potential made it clear
that the investment by the Funding Councils was to be used "at
the institutions' discretion,"7 and the more recent White
Paper Excellence and Opportunity espouses the same principle.
But a recent review of research funding by the HEFCE proposed
to attach seven new strings and conditions to the block grants
received by universities in England.
29. As SBS has expressed elsewhere, although the intention
of such conditions may be to increase accountability, they would
in fact increase central control over how the investment was used.8
30. Other sources of public funds, such as Research Council
grants, quite properly come with a high degree of control. The
ethos of the dual support system is supposed to be that Funding
Council investment in under local management, not central control.
In any case, no further accountability is needed. The RAE already
provides an extremely high degree of accountability for the Funding
Councils' research investment.
31. Whatever the benefits of the RAE, the UK science
and engineering community must be allowed to conduct creative
research in a dynamic system, as part of a wider remit of activities,
and without any further central control.
REFERENCES1 These figures are
for people who were working in the UK at the time they did the
work for which they were awarded the prize, irrespective of their
nationality; it is what happens in the UK science base that concerns
SBS, not the antecedents of the people who do it.
2 Selectivity in Research: Comments on USA-England Comparisons,
3 The Role of Selectivity and the Characteristics of Research
Excellence, Higher Education Policy Unit, Leeds, 2000.
4 Review of Research, HEFCE, 2000. [00/37].
5 Science and Society: Evidence, House of Lords Select Committee
on Science and Technology, Session 1999-2000. Stationery Office,
London. [HL Paper 38-I].
6 Higher Education in a Learning Society, Report of the National
Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education. The Stationery Office,
7 Realising Our Potential, Cabinet Office, 1993 [Cm 2250].
8 Distinguishing between accountability and control, SBS, 2000