Feature Academic Medicine

Research funding goes metric

BMJ 2008; 337 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.a1805 (Published 13 October 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a1805
  1. Geoff Watts, freelance journalist
  1. 1London
  1. geoff{at}scileg.freeserve.co.uk

    As UK researchers wait to find out what they will have to spend over the next five years, Geoff Watts assesses the system for allocating funds and how it will work in future

    Imagine it’s handout time at the Higher Education Funding Council for England and its equivalents in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Stacked up inside the vaults labelled “research money” sit piles of cash; outside, waiting impatiently to pocket their allotted share, a queue of vice chancellors and other university bosses. But how much will each receive? And according to what criteria?

    Since 1986 the distribution of university research funds has been decided by a baroque process known as the research assessment exercise or RAE. The results of the latest,1 due to be unveiled in December, will decide who gets what during the five years from 2009. The current exercise is the sixth of these monumental and sometimes controversial feats of academic bureaucracy. It will also be the last.

    The original point of rating UK academic research was to provide a measure of quality assurance. It still is, but the scheme rapidly evolved into a competition for funds—which is how most university staff now view it. A wider aim has been to promote the strength and international competitiveness of UK research by rewarding and so promoting high quality work in those institutions doing it best. Has the scheme succeeded?

    Yes, according to Gareth Roberts, who carried out a detailed review of the last research assessment.2 “All who examine the impact of the RAE upon UK research and its international reputation must, I think, agree that it has made us more focused, more self-critical and more respected across the world,” he said in his report. “It has done this, in large part, by encouraging universities and colleges …

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