Academics and Government at Odds Over Plans for REF

The head of the Russell Group of universities, Professor Michael Arthur, has argued that 90% of funding to be allocated in the Research Excellence Framework should be concentrated in 25 – 30 institutions. Commenting at a Times Higher Education conference at the Royal Society this week Prof. Arthur, who is also vice-chancellor of Leeds University, argued that HEFCE’s plans to distribute £1.5 billion of research funding to excellent research “wherever it takes place”, will lead “a progression to mediocrity”. In times of fiscal constraint, he said, spreading the pot of research funding thinly will lead to a potential loss of international excellence.

The Government is expected to announce a policy of concentration of research funding, in some form or another, within the next few weeks.

Prof. Arthur also criticised HEFCE’s plan to award 25% of the overall assessment of a Department’s research quality on the basis of the economic and societal impact of the research. This could mean £400 – £500 million of funding will be determined on the basis of impact. Professor Arthur highlighted the practical difficulties in measuring impact (variable time lags before the impact is apparent, variability among disciplines and the real concern of the humanities and social sciences), and suggested that basing 10% of the allocation on impact would be more appropriate.

Separately, the Times today reports that hundreds of scientists, including six Nobel laureates and Professor Richard Dawkins, have signed a statement condemning HEFCE’s plans to make funding conditional on social and economic impact, stating that this will be counterproductive. “The REF proposals are founded on a lack of understanding of how knowledge advances. It is often difficult to predict which research will create the greatest potential impact, ” the statement says. The researchers argue that the plans for the REF will mitigate against basic research and could lead to an intellectual ‘brain drain’ to the USA.

Meanwhile, Professor John Beddington, UK Government Chief Scientific Advisor, welcomes HEFCE’s plans to recognise the engagement in policy by academics as part of the REF, writing an opinion piece in the Times Higher. Prof. Beddington supports efforts to recognise and reward the contribution made by excellent research to Government policy-making and welcomes HEFCE’s plans explicitly to recognise work that leads to “better informed policy-making or improved services”. “The role of academic advice is to promote sound evidence, to challenge assumptions and subject claims to critical scrutiny”, Prof. Beddington states. “It is essential that Government gets the best advice on pressing issues of the day, but it is also important to promote a wider culture in which engagement between academics and government is the norm in policy delivery”.

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