Friday, October 16, 2009

Research Excellence Framework

Readers from outside the UK may wish to stop reading at this point, unless they are into schadenfreude. I recommend readers from the UK to sign this petition, which is sponsored by the Universities and College Union (UCU). It relates to the Research Excellence Framework (REF). The following text accompanies the petition; below I add some of my own comments.

The latest proposal by the higher education funding councils is for 25% of the new Research Excellence Framework (REF) to be assessed according to 'economic and social impact'. As academics, researchers and higher education professionals we believe that it is counterproductive to make funding for the best research conditional on its perceived economic and social benefits.

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 practical impact. History shows us that in many instances it is curiosity-driven research that has led to major scientific and cultural advances. If implemented, these proposals risk undermining support for basic research across all disciplines and may well lead to an academic brain drain to countries such as the United States that continue to value fundamental research.

Universities must continue to be spaces in which the spirit of adventure thrives and where researchers enjoy academic freedom to push back the boundaries of knowledge in their disciplines.

We, therefore, call on the UK funding councils to withdraw the current REF proposals and to work with academics and researchers on creating a funding regime which supports and fosters basic research in our universities and colleges rather than discourages it.

It is not only the UCU which expressing grave concerns about the REF; universities and societies that represent academic disciplines are also similarly concerned, and I will give examples of these in later posts. For the moment, the REF seems to be doing the impossible, namely to make us feel nostalgic for the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). At least the RAE was exactly that, a research assessment exercise. It did not set out to distort the meanings of the words it uses such as "impact" and "excellence".

The REF -- in its proposed form -- discriminates against theoretical work and imposes an artificial incentive to do work that has short-term economic impact. And you know what? I've got nothing against economic impact. But if a certain kind of research is able to make money, that should be its own reward; government-funded money-making is ridiculous. And just don't call it "research excellence", it's not the same thing.

Some articles

Article in the Independent Against The Grain: 'I didn't become a scientist to help companies profit' by Philip Moriarty

See the comments that follow this article in the Guardian (the comments that get highly-recommended are correct)


Luca Aceto said...

Paul, I just read this post of yours and I sincerely hope that impact on the economy never becomes a metric in evaluating academic research. When I have time I plan to read your other posts on this topic and the literature you point to.

You might find the words from Tony Hoare I quote in this blog post interesting. They should be mandatory reading for politicians and whoever makes these "reforms".

Paul Goldberg said...

Thanks, I saw the blog post you mention but hadn't read it carefully - will now do so!

Luca Aceto said...

Paul, I suspect Leslie-Ann and you will be interested in this article from MIT News.

Here is how the article starts:

Scientists are much more likely to produce innovative research when using long-term grants that allow them exceptional freedom in the lab, according to a new study co-written by MIT economists.

The work shows that biologists whose funding encourages them to take risks and tolerates initial research failures wind up producing about twice as many highly influential papers as some peers whose funding is dependent upon meeting closely defined, short-term research targets.