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Science could be stifled by new research rating system
12 May 2003


The Government is stifling potentially world-class science by focusing too much of its research funds into top-rated departments, according to a Royal Society report published today (12 May 2003).

In its response to the Government's Higher Education White Paper, the Royal Society criticised the Government's plans to give some 5* departments a new 6* rating and an uplift in funding over the next three years, at the expense of lower rated departments. In this year's round of allocations, the Government cut back on research funds for departments rated 4 and gave no money to the majority of departments rated 3. Universities are currently rated as being one of seven bands - from 1 to 5* - with the higher rated departments gaining a higher share of the funds. The Society also called on the Government to over haul the RAE by getting rid of the rigid research rating system and increase academic salaries to boost morale and keep staff in the British University system.

John Enderby, Vice President of the Royal Society, said, The Government says it is critical that we focus our resources on the strongest universities that give us the best returns. But a number of significant breakthroughs have occurred at universities outside the so-called 'Golden Triangle' of London, Oxford and Cambridge, for example liquid crystals at Hull University, magnetic resonance imaging at Nottingham University and DNA fingerprinting at Leicester University. Potentially Nobel-prizing winning research could well start in lower rated institutions because it is individuals and groups that undertake research, not departments or institutions. By just rewarding highly rated departments, the Government could be holding up innovative research else where. Many departments in emerging disciplines, for example, do not gain high ratings as researchers from these departments cannot be rated on an international level, simply because there are very few people to compare them with overseas. This is ironic as in reality they may be true trail-blazers. The level of research funding at both departmental and institutional levels is already highly selective and should not become more so.

While the White Paper acknowledged that the higher education system is less well funded than in many other developed countries and that academic staff salaries are too low, the Society has stressed that this should be addressed urgently. It called on the Government to both raise the level of general salaries and ensure that particularly talented individuals are rewarded adequately for their contributions.

It also called on the Government to scrap the research rating exercise and replace it with a 'profiling' system. Currently, the rating and the amount of money the university receives for research depend on the percentage and number of researchers the university has at international, national and sub-national levels. However, the allocation to bands is highly sensitive to the number of researchers at the lower levels and the Society has expressed concern that a department can be effectively penalised for including these staff in their submissions. To counter this, the Royal Society has proposed a 'profiling' system. Under this system, all members of academic staff would be assigned to one of three research groupings - international, national and sub-national or non-research active. Each of these groupings would attract a certain allocation of funding per staff member, for example international quality researchers might be given perhaps two and a half times the amount given to national researchers. This new system rewards staff and the department for the quality of research they do, without penalising the department for having some staff who are not at the cutting edge of research.

While the Society welcomes the Government's drive to widen participation, both for social justice and to ensure that full use is made of available talent, differential fees could deter students from entering HE or pursuing postgraduate studies.

NOTES FOR EDITORS
1. The Royal Society is an independent academy promoting the natural and applied sciences. Founded in 1660, the Society has three roles, as the UK academy of science, as a learned Society and as a funding agency. It responds to individual demand with selection by merit not by field. The Society's aims are to:
7 strengthen UK science by providing support to excellent individuals
7 fund excellent research to push back the frontiers of knowledge
7 attract and retain the best scientists
7 ensure the UK engages with the best science around the world
7 support science communication and education; and communicate and encourage dialogue with the public
7 provide the best independent advice nationally and internationally
7 promote scholarship and encourage research into the history of science

For further information contact:
Rebecca Wynn,
Press and Public Relations,
The Royal Society,
London
Tel: 020 7451 2514
Email: press@royalsoc.ac.uk