Page last updated at 02:11 GMT, Saturday, 1 March 2008

Blowing the whistle on the REF!

By Mike Baker

Mike Baker

RAE: they are just three little letters. If you live outside the intense world of universities they probably mean nothing.

Yet they represent something vital to researchers who are seeking answers to problems such as hunger, disease, social exclusion, or space exploration.

They dominate the lives of many academics, causing them thousands of hours of work, worry and discussion.

For university managers they represent both a great expense and the key to balancing budgets.

And for students they could be the cause of their university course or department being closed.

The letters are the acronym for the Research Assessment Exercise.

For 20 years this process has determined how the government allocates some 1.4 billion in cash to universities for research via the funding councils.

The new acronym has brought out football analogies along the lines of 'appealing to the ref' or 'blaming the ref

Now it is being scrapped. The then Chancellor, Gordon Brown, dropped this bombshell last March in one of his final acts before becoming prime minister.

The reason: the government felt it was too complex, costly, and burdensome.

Now, almost a year on, the search for a quick and easy system to replace it has become a complex wrangle and the topic of anxious discussion in senior common rooms.

Indeed, three new letters are now on everyone's lips: REF. They stand for the Research Excellence Framework.

This is the RAE Mark II. Inevitably, the new acronym has brought out football analogies along the lines of 'appealing to the ref' or 'blaming the ref'.

High stakes

So why does any of this matter to those whose lives do not revolve around the laboratories and libraries of academia?

One reason is that the REF will be crucial in determining who is able to undertake 'blue skies' research.

In other words, it will hold the purse strings for research which, while it may not seem important now, could turn out to be the critical breakthrough in solving any number of the big problems facing the modern world.

The stakes are high for the country's bigger and older universities. For them, REF funding will determine whether they can hold onto researchers who might otherwise be lured abroad.

The links between a country's research base and its economy are strong and global competition for university researchers has never been more intense, with not only the USA exerting a strong pull but also the fast-emerging research capacity in China and India.

So what are the arguments about? The initial plan was to 'radically simplify' the RAE approach.

One fundamental criticism of the REF is that it will make it very difficult to do curiosity-based - or simply unpopular or unfashionable - research
The RAE involved panels of experts sifting through piles of published academic research in order to grade university departments on a scale from 1 to 5*. It absorbed a huge amount of labour.

So crucial was its outcome, that universities even spent large sums on consultants to help them do trial runs. Slipping from a 5* to a 5, or worse still to a 4, could spell academic ruin.

So the simple idea was to move to a system based on so-called 'metrics'.

Metrics involves measuring things in order to compare their scale. The initial idea was to base metrics around the amount of other income researchers attracted from industrial or charitable sources.

This approach was attractive to the government because it wanted a measure that was more sensitive to the needs of industry and the economy.

However, this measure was soon found to be inadequate for many areas, particularly outside industrially relevant research. So another piece of metrics was proposed: counting the number of times a piece of research is cited by other researchers.

Legal action

The more citations - the argument goes - the more important the research. This would then provide a numerical equation for distributing funds.

However, not surprisingly perhaps in the argumentative world of academia, no one can quite agree on which are the right metrics.

Moreover, some argue that metrics are just inappropriate in some areas, particularly outside the sciences.

Metrics could turn out to be better at measuring the impact of research (particularly on other researchers) rather than its quality.

The government has just completed its consultation process on the proposed REF. Few seem to be happy, although the revised proposals are generally deemed to be an improvement on the original plans and they now include a so-called 'light touch peer review' for arts and humanities subjects.

Legal action

A particularly damaging criticism came from Research Councils UK whose submission to the consultation said the plans were 'not acceptable in their current form'.

One fundamental criticism of the REF is that it will make it very difficult to do curiosity-based - or simply unpopular or unfashionable - research. Some say the citations approach will simply prove unworkable.

There is even talk that some universities would consider taking legal action if they lost out in the REF.

All this leaves the government in a bit of a pickle. The Treasury announcement last March was a bolt from the blue and, by all accounts, the education department was not consulted.

Now the new Department for Innovation Universities and Skills (DIUS) must find a solution.

Some fear that if it fails to do so, ministers could abandon the current dual support system altogether.

This is the system whereby research is funded partly through the RAE, which funds departments, and partly through the network of research councils, which fund specific research projects.

Some say this would not matter much as the outcomes would be more or less the same (that is because a minority of universities take the majority of research funding whether it is allocated through the RAE or through the research councils).

For now, though, ministers have said that ending the dual support system is not on the cards.

But if they cannot find a way of getting the REF into the game, more radical solutions may be proposed.

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