UK plans research funding overhaul

Government to debate proposals to rethink university research funding over the next four months

By | June 20, 2006

British government proposals to overhaul the way academic research is funded could result in a redistribution of money among universities, with top centers such as Cambridge and Durham losing funds, while some newer institutions gain funds, it emerged last week. Last Tuesday (June 13), Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell said the existing Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), which uses peer review to determine how more than £1bn in funding is divided among universities each year, would be held for the last time in 2008. In its place, the government wants a more straightforward system that focuses on "metrics," or statistical analyses of outcomes. For subjects like science, engineering, and medicine, funders would use levels of external research income to calculate government funding, Rammell said. A working group put together by the government developed five different proposals for how the new system might work. When the Higher Education Funding Council for England evaluated those proposals, it found that universities such as Durham, Cambridge, and Manchester could lose millions of pounds of funding each year. However, others such as the University of Greenwich and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine could gain a similar amount each year, thanks to their relatively high levels of external funding. "Some universities will do well and others will do badly out of the new system," said Peter Cotgreave, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering. He noted that this will inevitably trigger disputes as the government consults with universities on the possible changes between now and October 13. "Of course there will be some who will complain," he said. For now, Universities UK has struck a cautious note in its response. Its president, Drummond Bone, said the vice-chancellors' group welcomed the news that RAE 2008 will go ahead as planned. "This will allow us to have a thorough debate about what replaces the RAE in the longer term, and we look forward to responding to the government's consultation document," he said in a statement. Cotgreave, who describes the RAE as an albatross around the neck of university science, welcomed the system's death-knell. For science and engineering disciplines, a metric-based system would cut swathes of bureaucracy, he said. But in Cotgreave's view, however, the system could do with an even bigger shake-up. "For science and engineering, if what you want is roughly the same distribution as you get with the RAE then you may as well use a metric-based system," he said. "But if you want is a system that supports the kind of risky research that the funding council grant is supposed to be for then you need something different." He added that the current system has caused scientists to "do safe research that will do well in the RAE," noting that CaSE plans to argue for systems that provide more support for risky research during the consultation period. Stephen Pincock Links within this article DFES: Reform of higher education research assessment and funding H. Gavaghan, "Mixed reaction to RAE proposals," The Scientist, June 6, 2003. HEFCE: Reform of higher education research assessment and funding Campaign for Science and Engineering Universities UK


June 21, 2006

The RAE conversion from the present costly, wasteful exercise to cost-efficient metrics is welcome and overdue, but the worrying thing is that the RAE planners currently seem to be focused on just one metric -- prior research funding -- instead of the full and rich spectrum of new (and old) metrics that will become available in an Open Access world, with all the research performance data digitally available online for analysis and use. Mechanically basing the future RAE rankings on prior funding would just generate a Matthew Effect (making the rich richer and the poor poorer), a self-fulfilling prophecy that is simply equivalent to increasing the amount given to those who were previously funded (and scrapping the RAE altogether, as a further, semi-independent performance evaluator and funding source). What the RAE *should* be planning to do is to look at weighted combinations of all available research performance metrics -- including the many that are correlated, but not so tightly correlated, with prior RAE rankings, such as author/article/book citation counts, article download counts, co-citations (co-cited with and co-cited by, weighted with the citation weight of the co-citer/co-citee), endogamy/exogamy metrics (citations by self or collaborators versus others, within and across disciplines), hub/authority counts (in-cites and out-cites, weighted recursively by the citation's own in-cite and out-cite counts), download and citation growth rates, semantic-web correlates, etc. It would be both arbitrary and absurd to blunt the sensitivity, predictivity and validity of metrics a priori by biassing them toward prior funding alone, which should just be one of a full battery of weighted metrics, adjusted to each discipline and validated against one another (and against human judgment too).\n\nShadbolt, N., Brody, T., Carr, L. and Harnad, S. (2006) The Open Research Web: A Preview of the Optimal and the Inevitable, in Jacobs, N., Eds. Open Access: Key Strategic, Technical and Economic Aspects, chapter 21. Chandos.\n

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