Education And Debate

Misleading, unscientific, and unjust: the United Kingdom's research assessment exercise

BMJ 1998; 316 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.316.7137.1079 (Published 04 April 1998) Cite this as: BMJ 1998;316:1079
  1. Gareth Williams, professor of medicine
  1. Department of Medicine, University of Liverpool, Duncan Building, Liverpool L69 3GA
  • Accepted 25 February 1998

Keen observers of Britain will know of our obsession with regularly occurring phenomena that involve large sums of money, balls, and disappointment. Two obvious examples are test match cricket and the national lottery. Another, just as parochial but with lessons for the global scientific community, is the research assessment exercise (RAE) run every four years by the Higher Education Funding Councils. The aim of the exercise is to measure research activity in British academic institutions and thus determine how the councils' research budget will be distributed among the country's universities.

Summary points

The aim of the research assessment exercise is to evaluate research success and determine central funding for academic units in the United Kingdom

The assessment criteria used are restrictive, flawed, and unscientific and produce a distorted picture of research activity that can threaten the survival of active and productive research units

The assessment exercise is also unaccountable, inefficient, time consuming, and expensive

The assessment exercise should be made objective, by basing it solely on each unit's total published output during the survey period; each publication would be scored for quality (using agreed criteria) and the unit's share of the work done

With a computerised spreadsheet, data could be collected easily and each unit's submission for assessment continually updated. The assessment scores could determine the national ranking of groups in each specialty, as well as the distribution of central funds to each unit

The importance of the exercise

In the 1996 research assessment exercise each “unit of assessment” in each university was graded from 1 (research of little consequence) to 5 (research of international renown) and 5* (outstanding).1 In the “hospital based clinical medicine” unit of assessment (which includes all mainstream medical and surgical specialties) a grade 5* was awarded to two institutions, grade 5 to four, grade 4 to eight, grade 3a and 3b …

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