Professor Michael Sterling, Vice Chancellor of the University of Birmingham has welcomed the Government's emphasis on science and technology research and development, as announced in today's budget statement (22 March 06). Among a number of measures particularly significant for higher education, Chancellor Gordon Brown announced his specific intention for measures "radically simplifying research funding". It is believed this previews a radical re-consideration of the national Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), further details of which appear in a paper entitled "Science Innovation: the Next Steps" available online from the Treasury website.
Professor Sterling said "Simplifying the process is long overdue as the RAE is well past its sell by date: it tells neither universities nor Government anything we don't already know; it is hugely expensive and massively time consuming. We need a new system which means that academics spend their time being academics while the nation as whole gets more research bangs for tax payers' bucks."
Last conducted in 2001, the RAE is a periodic exercise, covering all the UK's university research. It is the basis of a system of grade and star ratings and intended as a quality measure of the excellence of the nation's research. However, the direct costs of the RAE itself already stand at an acknowledged £40 million while estimates suggest the real costs are up to ten times that much - £400 million – because of the amount of academics' time spent in the assessment process, related administration and – according to Professor Sterling – "unproductive gamesmanship".
Universities nationwide are already gearing up for the RAE, due to take place in 2008. Today's announcement offers the opportunity for that regime to change quickly.
A short consultation process is to be launched in May, during which, it is believed, the UK's universities might have the opportunity to decide, on a national basis, whether or not some subjects would opt out of the 2008 RAE. It is expected that the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine (STEM) would be keen to abandon the RAE and use research grants and contract income as a proxy. Government funding might then be awarded on a different basis: an assessment of how successful institutions had been over a track record of research grant and contract income in these key subjects.
The arts and humanities subjects are less reliant on research council external funding and it is therefore likely that some quality assessment process would need to remain until universities and Government were both confident that they too could move to a new system.
Professor Sterling continues "For many years now, it has been obvious that there is consistently a direct correlation between research grants and contract income and excellence in research. Particularly in these STEM subjects, if you are good, you make good bids and you attract significant grants. That means you build up a profile of successful 'repeat business' with the Research Councils, with business and industry and with charities. This review gives us the opportunity to stop wasting time and money on the RAE process, at least for some areas.
He added "We believe existing financial measures are also absolute measures of quality and of peer review. Academic research is funded not only on the basis of a good bid, but of a good outcome from previous research. If your research does not measure up in the eyes of a highly critical peer audience, you simply do not get repeat grants: there is no hiding your quality. If you look at a league table of RAE ratings and match that with a league table of year on year achievements in research grant and contract income, institutions are mostly in the same place. A new system based on those existing measures is financially and academically robust for the subjects in question, has an established track record of accuracy, saves millions and saves time. I look forward to a review that, I hope, will bring about significant changes for UK higher education."
Notes to Editors:
1. Professor Sterling is also Chair of the Russell Group of the UK's premier research intensive universities
2. The paper entitled "Science Innovation: the Next Steps" is available online at: www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/budget/budget_06/assoc_docs/bud_bud06_adscience.cfm
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