Illustration: Erica P. Johnson

Every five or six years, the United Kingdom's academic establishment sets out to perform an experiment on itself. Called the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), the vast endeavor involves 60 research panels, each investigating a specific discipline, from musicology to genomics. The panels, consisting of about 15 eminent researchers per panel, evaluate the research output of every participating university and institute. In the end, each institution receives a ranking based on the quality of its research.

The RAE is enormously time consuming and costly. It takes up to a year of dedicated work by panel members and the administrative staff of the academic departments. And the four Higher Education Funding Councils that sponsor it spend as much £50 million for the report. The stakes are enormously high as well. In addition to the bragging rights such a qualitative ranking bestows, the final score of each school is...

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