Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80 - 99)



  80. Thank you. You have actually answered part of my next question, which was about the breadth of the representation. Do you believe that the actual peer review system provides a robust enough system, compared with, say, the Research Councils?
  (Mr Cottrell) We think it is better than the alternatives. There was a time, at the beginning of the RAE, the first RAE, when there was a lot of talk about using bibliometric analysis and citation counting as an alternative to peer review, and we certainly would see peer review as a much more high quality and deeper analysis of research than mechanistic methods of assessing it. However, it can always be improved, and I think this is where our issues about transparency and openness come in. The RAE stood a very close system, in terms of how the panels operate; we know, and it is largely through hearsay, but we know from our members, that the panels actually operate in very different ways. Some, for example, draw up a list of approved journals and they will not look at publication in any others; others are much more open to a range of publications, and also to outputs in different forms and not just publications. And we would like to see a much more open approach to how they go about their work, so that we are in a position to judge how they are applying their peer review; at the moment it is extremely difficult to do that.


  81. Will the chairs of the panels not go to the universities, if asked, to tell them what the rules are going to be; does not a bit of that go on, too? Some know to do that, and others do not?
  (Mr Cottrell) Yes, Chairman. There is a certain amount of feedback, but not enough, it is not consistent enough. We find it very difficult to get information. At one point, we were so frustrated that we wrote ourselves to the chairs of panels, and we got our wrists very soundly slapped by the RAE managers for doing that, and they told the panels not to respond to our queries. If we cannot get the answers from the RAE managers, where can we get the answers from?

Mr Heath

  82. I was going to ask about selectivity. I just want to come back, briefly, to an answer Ms Fenton gave a little earlier, when she talked about her own department and the fact that the emphasis had changed from teaching to research, in order to accommodate the RAE. Would that tendency be corrected were there to be a premium on good teaching practice, in the same way as there was a premium on good research practice?
  (Ms Fenton) It would be partly rectified, I think, by that. There is a sense in which the culture in the pre-`92 institutions has concentrated very much on research over a long period of time. The RAE has contributed to that, quite dramatically. But there is a cultural issue as well. The AUT has always said that teaching is deprioritised unnecessarily, and that actually has a direct impact on gender discrimination within the sector; a lot of women, for whatever reason, focus more heavily on their teaching than a lot of men, and so they see their careers suffer because of it. And that may also impact on why they are excluded more often than men from the RAE return.

  83. I think some will take the view, within the sort of pre-renaissance sector of the universities, that teaching has always been of a fairly low priority?
  (Ms Fenton) I think it has accelerated it.

  84. I now want to move on to selectivity. You have accepted the principle of selectivity; you criticise the present process, because you say that 75 per cent of the funding goes to 25 institutions. Okay; so where is the balance that you feel is appropriate to the needs of the institutions of this country?
  (Professor Bowman) I think this is a very simple question, this is how narrow do you want to make it; because if you chop the last person in every race you would soon end up with no-one in the race. And I think there is a problem, and, in my own science, chemistry has gone down, 68 entries in the first RAE, down to some 40; it is nearly 50 per cent down. So your breadth of colleagues and departments and geographical location has declined quite dramatically. So there really is a problem there; you need to keep the base wide, and the only way you can keep the base wide is giving enough funding to that base. I went to Denmark and lectured. Each chemistry department gets equal funding, so the less known and respected university could build up its strength, whereas one had to sort of mark time for a bit of time. Here we have the thing, the strong are rewarded and the weak are punished, so the weak get weaker and are very quickly closed. And slowly but surely your base of research is going to decline; and you can now see that becoming a problem. It is fine that Oxford and Cambridge, Imperial College, do extremely well, and are very good colleagues, but the base of people involved in this research has declined, to the point where, a lot of departments, you see them slowly fading and dying, any colleague who can move moves. It is like the football league, if you are a good player you move up the league, and the problem is that the team at the bottom gets worse. Because, at one time, you had leading professors in small departments, kept a good quality there; they now have to move, if they want to carry on with their research career, so what was a good department slips down the leagues, closed. So you have to have the width of funding.

  Mr Heath: Let me play devil's advocate here, not necessarily agreeing with this proposition. But some would argue that, in arguing that case, you are, quite correctly, representing your membership, and you are, to use the current phrase, working for the many rather than the few.

  Chairman: That is a new phrase. I have not heard that one.

Mr Heath

  85. We do not hear it very often, do we. How would you rebut that suggestion and persuade this Committee that, actually, this was important, not in terms of the interests of your members, and indeed the institutions across the country, but in terms of the quality of research in the science base within this country, in the interests of UK science, as opposed to the UK university sector?
  (Professor Bowman) I think I can answer part of that. I know personally most of the leading colleagues in my own area, as does Dr Iddon, and many of them, in private, will admit to you that they do not like the RAE, they do not think it is helpful; often leading departments, Oxford and Cambridge, will tell you it is not a good system, Oxford and Cambridge will always be at the top, whatever happens, they do not need to have an RAE to tell everyone that. And the problem is, it is a destructive system. They would like to see wider spending, but they would like to see it wisely used, and that is a very difficult and long debate, of how you ensure that the money is widely used; there is no immediate answer to that. But if you keep chopping at departments, keep chopping the money, there is no doubt they are going to do badly.

  86. Yes, the Russell group universities will, almost inevitably, come to the top of a British league—but an international league, if we are comparing with the continental science base, in the USA, for instance?
  (Professor Bowman) I think, to compete with the international league, there would have to be an awful lot more than the £900 million, or so, going up, I think you would be talking two or three times that. I have colleagues who have come from the US, and they said, even going to Oxford and Cambridge, it looks second-rate to the leading American universities; the funding just is not there.

  Dr Iddon: We want to turn, finally, to your suggestion, and I expect you will want us to do that, the seed-corn fund idea; and my first question is, therefore, related to that: have you got an estimate of the number of competent researchers who have been classed over the years, and obviously some of them, like Dr Gibson and myself, have just disappeared from the system, for various reasons,—

  Chairman: It is to their advantage, I should think.

Dr Iddon

  87. How many people, who have been fairly competent at research in the past, are now classed as research-inactive, under this recent Exercise; do we have a feel for that?
  (Mr Cottrell) I do not have a feel for numbers, but can I say just a little bit, Chair, about this concept of being research-inactive, because it is a very sore point. Around this current RAE, I took many calls from members, who told me that they had been told that they were research-inactive; this may be hard to believe, but some of those actually find it quite hard to find out even if they were going to be put in for the RAE. When they eventually found that out, and found that they were not, and they questioned it, quite a lot of them were told that they were, indeed, eligible for submission, and there was no question about them not doing research, and not doing good research, but that they had been excluded for strategic reasons. Fine; but they are still defined as research-inactive, and the effects of that on their morale and on their career prospects are considerable. So I do not think we can talk simply about those who are research-active being submitted, and those who were not as being research-inactive, they very well may not be research-inactive, but they were not entered for strategic reasons. And that happened much, much more this time than in previous RAEs; and the effect of that has been very, very bad for research generally and for those individuals, and will affect their careers and will affect their progression. And all I can say is, and it is purely anecdotal, that many of the ones I spoke to were youngish women.

  88. To come back to you on that, there are no accurate figures, subject by subject, department by department, that would give us that kind of evidence?
  (Mr Cottrell) We are told that that information will be produced this time, but whether it will be in aggregate or whether it will be down to departmental level, I do not know, I think that is a question for HEFCE.

  89. Now your seed-corn idea, of course, is aimed at departments that are rated 1 and 2 by the Research Assessment Exercise. Again, I am looking for evidence, because, if we have to be critical of the RAE and if we have to peer review in the future, we have to be able to replace it, or add to it, as you are proposing. So I wonder if there is any evidence of the research competence, and the amount of research competence in these grade 1 and 2 departments that you are proposing to seed-corn fund?
  (Professor Bowman) If I can answer very briefly, I think possibly the binary divide having disappeared some years ago, when what was then the polytechnic sector, there was very little active leading research going on; now, if you look at the new university sector, a lot of them have grade 5, some have grade 5*, and they are still in the bottom half. And it seems to me the divide is still exactly new university, old university, but there are departments that come right up, and without funding of some sort they would never have managed that. Now if I talk of my own university, which is an ex-college of advanced technology, it struggled to get up the system; now we would have loved some of that money, people have pulled themselves up by their boot-straps over 25 years. It is even harder for the new universities who are in a much less generous environment than we were 25, 30 years ago. So, I think, some of those departments, they have to be very selective; but people could apply, try to win the reason why they should get some of that money, to give them a chance to bring a lot of the new universities up in the research league.

  90. Again, we cannot put figures on it, at the moment?
  (Professor Bowman) No.
  (Ms Fenton) It is difficult to locate exactly. But one of the good things that the RAE did do was that it did stimulate research and research development in those institutions that had previously considered it not anything to do with their business at all. That has to be good, I think, for the degree and level of teaching that goes on in those institutions. I am a firm believer in the relationship between teaching and research, and not just scholarship, actually, as HEFCE said, but actually research; you get direct feedback from students that say, "It's brilliant to hear from somebody who's actually doing it and who really has an active enthusiasm for that subject because of that." I think there is a direct relationship there between quality teaching and good research. Now if you take that money away, if there is no money now for those departments which have just started on that trail, then we really stand to subject them to substantial damage, actually, the demoralisation they will face will be huge; because some of them have fought tooth and nail to get into that research arena, and they are now being told, "Forget it; there's no funding attached, no point in doing it." We do a huge disservice to all the students who go to those institutions, and they happen to be students who generally have lower entry qualifications, and there is a direct correlation there to social class. So I really think it has to be bad, in general, not to reward, in some way, shape or form, any research that is going on.

  91. If you direct your seed-corn funding at departments that are graded 1 and 2, and if the RAE-driven funding is directed mainly at the top of the structure, to 5*, 5 and maybe 4, what is going to happen to the people who are squeezed in the middle, in the 3as and 3bs?
  (Mr Cottrell) We are arguing, also, if you remember, Chair, for a smoothing of the distribution, so I do not think they would be squeezed quite so much. Going back to the question about what evidence there is for my proposition, which I suggested in my opening remarks, that the distribution of funding is narrower than the distribution of talent, one source of evidence is that when the polytechnics moved into the RAE and became universities there was an element of funding, not unlike our seed-corn proposal, it was called DevR, development research, and it will be interesting to see whether some of the departments in the new universities, which are now doing very well in the RAE, are the ones which got some of that DevR money, which kept them going. And it is that pump-priming effect that we are looking for, and we are convinced that it would strengthen the science base overall.

  92. Now you are looking for 10 per cent of the money, and it would have to be extra money; you are not suggesting top-slicing the current research funding; do you think that is realistic, in the present climate?
  (Mr Cottrell) I think, Chair, we should argue for it. I think our job is to represent our members as effectively as we can, both as a trade union and as a professional association. Whether it is realistic or not, we think that the arguments for it are extremely strong, and we have got to put those arguments; it is for Government to respond.
  (Professor Bowman) If I may comment briefly on the funding thing. HEFCE estimate £200 million is needed to keep up present funding; and, to be blunt, that is peanuts, in Government spending, utter peanuts. But the investment and the return on that investment would be huge, and far, far better than much other funding I can think of Government spending. If you look at what is coming, spin-off industries, new innovations, employment for large numbers of people in this country; that must be an excellent investment, if you just think of all the things. Britain is having to rely increasingly on high-tech stuff, well-trained staff, graduates, that is where real money comes into the economy; and, for £200 million, or £300 million, any stockbroker would go for that.

  93. Finally, assuming we could get this 10 per cent extra funding and we directed it at the research hopefuls in grade 1 and 2 departments, how would you propose to distribute that yourselves? I do not propose that you would distribute it, but how would you propose it should be distributed?
  (Mr Cottrell) Chair, by peer review, as the DevR money was before, through the panels, with the improvements we would like to see in the panels.

  94. So using the RAE, or whatever might replace it?
  (Mr Cottrell) Yes, exactly; so long as it is a peer review system.

Dr Murrison

  95. Could you just tell me how you arrived at the figure of £100 million that you have requested for new research, as seed-corn money?
  (Mr Cottrell) It is actually a bit more than 10 per cent of the overall Funding Council allocation for research.

  96. So it is an empirical thing?
  (Mr Cottrell) Yes.

  97. Not based upon what you think needs to be provided to achieve certain outputs?
  (Mr Cottrell) No, it is not. It is not a sophisticated figure. We looked at the numbers of 1s and 2s to get a rough idea of what a reasonably fair distribution for them would be. The 10 per cent is slightly less than they would get if you extrapolated from the RAE formula, but it is a rough estimate of what we think would produce some pump-priming funding that could be effective.

  98. Professor, just to clarify one point. You hinted, in your opening remarks, that the way the RAE is structured influences the number of publications that departments might have to produce, or feel they ought to produce. Could you just clarify that?
  (Professor Bowman) I think there is a drive for productivity at all levels, both on quality of publication, it is always talked of as output, you have an input of finance coming in to pay for research, and output, one important factor, that is publication; but it is not just the quality, it is also the amount. If you publish one paper in five years, even if it is in one of the leading journals, people will say, "Well, what's so-and-so been doing?" If you are publishing 20 papers in that time, some in lesser journals, obviously it is going to have a much more important factor.

  99. But that cannot be taken into account by the RAE, can it?
  (Professor Bowman) That is quite correct.

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