Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)



Dr Iddon

  20. Have you got any feel for what percentage of the panel that you select are going to be counted into a research exercise in their academic institutes, where the academics are concerned? That is the first question.
  (Mr Bekhradnia) You mean the percentage that are likely to find themselves being assessed by the panel that is carrying out this Exercise?

  21. What I am really getting at is, if they are very research-active, I do not know how they can find the time to go and assess another department, and surely that is a deterrent. If you have got a good researcher, he wants to stay doing his research and count for the department, and the head of department surely wants that person to count for the department as well. So what is the incentive for people to join the panel?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) I think there is a degree of esteem attached to being selected to serve on a Research Assessment panel. John, perhaps you can tell us what proportion of invitations to serve are rejected?
  (Mr Rogers) Very few. I can certainly give you an exact figure. I can check that and pass on the information.


  22. That would be useful, yes, if you could let us have it subsequently, please?
  (Mr Rogers) Yes.
  (Mr Bekhradnia) But, by and large, our experience is that, if people have been nominated by the learned societies, by the industrial groups, whatever it is, whoever it is that makes the nominations—

  23. That is what I mean by being clubby', it is within the `club', you are asking other professional groupings, the Royal Societies of this and that or the other?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) Most academics and most people engaged in research are, one way or another, members of these groupings, Chairman; there are 1,300 of these groupings, it is wide-ranging. It is necessary that they should be engaged one way or another, and be able credibly to make an assessment of research quality; that is the only qualification.

Mr Hoban

  24. What proportion of the panel is actually from outside academia, and, of those, how many are industrialists?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) We made a particular effort, in this respect, in 2001, and it varied quite considerably between panels. In philosophy, for example, I suspect there were very few; in some of the engineering subjects, they were well represented. I think, overall, it was about ...
  (Mr Rogers) Thirteen per cent of all panel members were not current serving academics, but the proportions vary greatly by subject area. A typical percentage in the sciences is 20 per cent, clinical medicine 25 per cent, engineering 26 per cent, education and some of the other social sciences getting on for a quarter, as well. The non-academic members were drawn from a variety of backgrounds, as appropriate to the subject; again, I cannot tell you exactly, off the top of my head, how many were from industry, but, again, we can supply that information. In the engineering area, it would be typical for all of the non-academic members to be industrial engineers; in the clinical panels, it was common for there to be people there from NHS research and development, officers from the medical charities, and others, on the panels. So you have got a range of health and social care professionals in panels, where that is appropriate, alongside industrialists; the 13 per cent overall.
  (Mr Bekhradnia) One of the things, Chairman, if I may add, that we have been particularly keen on, that we found particularly difficult, and those of you familiar with industry will understand this, is persuading people from industry to take the time that is necessary to serve on a Research Assessment panel. Dr Iddon alluded, I think, or was it you, sorry, Chairman, to the burden that is placed on academics; academics will do it partly out of a feeling of service to their own community, partly because it might be seen to further their careers. I think, for people from industry, there is a real issue, and we were gratified that as many as did participated in the Exercise. But I think it is fair to say that probably we had a higher proportion of refusals from people who were invited from industry than we did from outside.

Mr Harris

  25. I want to ask a few questions about the funding arrangements, some general funding questions later on, but, first of all, specifically: I understand that, as a result of the RAE allocation, there are some departments which will receive lower funding, even those which have maintained, or even improved, their grade; you could maybe correct me, if I am wrong on that. If it is the case then do you not think this will have a detrimental effect on academics' morale and their confidence in the actual RAE process?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) If I can take those two points separately. I do not see why it should affect their confidence in the process, no; but I do worry that it may have an effect on their morale, yes. I think that we will be in a position where, because there has been a significant improvement in research performance and not yet a commensurate increase in the funding that is available; there will be academics in departments, certainly those that have not improved, but even those departments where they have improved, who will find that their funding has stood still, or gone down. And, yes, I think we must be concerned that that will have an impact on morale.

  26. You say you do not think it will have an impact on confidence in the process; surely, as a result of this process, they are providing the results but the process means they are not going to be funded as well in the future?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) I am sorry, I thought you meant in the integrity of the process, or in the validity of the results of the process. Yes, it may well; it is not a process probably that is loved by all academics, at the best of times, but I think it may make them love it even less.

  27. More generally, how did you decide the allocation of funds for 2002, as a result of that RAE 2001?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) The allocation of the funds; well, I hope you received a notification of what we—


  28. The £30 million extra that has gone to certain groupings, the funding; we will ask about that, yes.
  (Mr Bekhradnia) Yes; and we were glad to have that money, of course. That is, in part, I hope, a reflection of the confidence the Government has that this improvement has been substantial and real. What we have decided is this. You know that we allocate research money formulaically, that is actually how we do it, and the Research Assessment Exercise provides us with part of the formula. We have decided that the average rate of funding of the 5* grade will be maintained, in real terms, so it will be increased in cash. We have decided that 3a-rated departments will have £20 million distributed between them, overall, over the sector as a whole, and that the remainder of the money will be distributed between 4s and 5s. And the £30 million that we received this week would be specifically injected into, would be an addition to the 5s. Now the consequence of all that, despite the additional £30 million, is that the rate of funding, the funding per unit, per academic, will reduce on average quite substantially, by about 15 per cent, for 5s, and, John, I do not know if you recall the others.
  (Mr Rushforth) And by about 30 per cent for 4s.
  (Mr Bekhradnia) It is a formulaic basis for allocation, it depends on the money we have. And you can imagine that we have argued vigorously with the Government that funds for research should be increased, in part to reflect the improvement in the research assessed, but also, as I think we referred to in our submission to you, there is evidence, and it is not published yet but we will publish it, of a quite significant funding gap, in terms of the amount of money that universities receive compared with the costs of the research that they carry out, and I think that we have argued that that gap needs to be bridged; and I think that this is all part of the evidence for that.

Mr Harris

  29. I want to come on to this £30 million slightly later, but staying with the allocation for 2002, before you made those decisions, did you consult with other funding councils?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) We sit on each other's boards, so we are aware of what each other is thinking, and, yes, we do talk to each other.

  30. So they were consulted on it?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) Consulted is not the right term—we spoke to each other and we were aware of what each other was doing.

  31. Since the Chair mentioned the £30 million from the DfES, is it enough? That is probably the wrong question to ask. How did you allocate it; do you think it should have been more, and how can it be used to protect the departments?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) We would need a lot more than £30 million, as we have said, and as you will see, to maintain levels of funding for the different points in a grade; but, I have to say, that is not itself a funding gap. There is no magic about the rates at which we were funding 5s, 4s or 3s previously, so I would not say that that was evidence of a funding gap, or that £30 million was inadequate for that. But, as is apparent from the research that I referred to, that we call the transparency review, there is a very substantial gap, and that £30 million will not do anything very much to bridge that gap. It is very welcome and it does help us to reduce the cut that we have to make to the 5-rated departments; but, no, of course, it is far from being sufficient to bridge what we have identified as being the gap between the cost of the research that is carried out and the money received.


  32. Come on then, what are you doing about it? With the Comprehensive Spending Review coming up, your timing is immaculate. I am sure you planned it, you must have; you would do it in future and relate to the Comprehensive Spending Review. But what are you doing to influence the Comprehensive Spending Review, what arguments have you got that might induce the Iron Chancellor to relax the grip on higher education research?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) Many of the arguments, Chairman, speak for themselves, and they have been set out in what we have said to you.

  33. We know all that, but are they listening to you, do you think?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) We hope they are, Chairman. I hope you will call for evidence from the Treasury. I am in slight difficulty here, because, as you probably know, there is a convention that the advice that we give to the Government is required to be in confidence; but I think some of the evidence for the improvement and the gap that we have spoken of is pretty eloquent.

Dr Iddon

  34. I just want to turn to how I feel the RAE perhaps has damaged or distorted the infrastructure in higher education; and we started this debate at the beginning, but I want to pursue it in just a bit more detail now, and I did mention, for example, the impact on materials science, which is in the evidence here. But perhaps, Chairman, at this stage, I ought to declare my two interests, for the record. I was a member of the Association of University Teachers, and I guess I am still an honorary member; so that is one interest declared. I am also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry, and I am their Parliamentary Adviser, at the moment; so that is two further interests declared. Having said that, let me just concentrate on chemistry, because obviously that is the subject I know best. In the Royal Society of Chemistry submission, which I have read in detail, they make the allegation that the Research Assessment Exercise has forced the closure of science departments, and in particular chemistry departments; let me back that up with some figures. They say that, since 1992, 18 cost centres in chemistry have actually been forced to close, but they do make the point that, in terms of staff, it has only gone down from 1,388 to 1,300 in the same time; but they give the warning also that the 2001 Research Exercise and its impact particularly on 3a and 3b grades, because you have made the announcement that you are going to maintain the funding for 5*, so somebody has got to suffer, and the Royal Society of Chemistry believe that 11 more departments are highly at risk now. Now this is just chemistry. I could cite physics, I could cite mathematics, I could go right across the science and engineering board. And what I have to submit to you is that I think the Research Assessment Exercise has driven universities over to the arts side, because it is cheaper to do the research there; in my opinion it is easier to get 5 and 5* determinations in arts than it is in science. Now I know that is a serious allegation, but it is one widely felt through the science and engineering community, and I ask you to defend the position?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) There are a number of distinctions we need to draw, but the one that I was thinking of was between the Research Assessment Exercise, as a process that identifies quality of research, and then the process for allocating funds for research, and the amount of money that there is available for it. The amount of money that goes to chemistry, and therefore the ability to sustain chemistry departments, is not influenced by the Research Assessment Exercise. The amount of money that goes to a subject is a function of only two things; one is the relative cost of that subject—so chemistry will be funded very much more generously than history, say—and the volume of research that is conducted in that subject, so if there are more chemists doing research then more money will be provided for chemistry. The Research Assessment Exercise is used then to allocate money within chemistry. Once the total amount of money available for chemistry has been established, without reference to the Research Assessment Exercise, the RAE is used then as a way of deciding which departments should receive how much money. Now if there are chemistry departments closing, and I think you have shown that there are, then I suggest that there are other things at work here; and one of the things that is at work could well be the demand for chemistry from students. I do not have the data here, but I suspect that chemistry may be one of those subjects where demand from students is in decline and so universities are responding by rationalising, and, from the figures you have given, it is more rationalisation than simple closure, because the number of staff has not been declining commensurately. So I think there are several things that we have to distinguish going on, but I certainly refute the suggestion it is the RAE itself, as you have suggested, that is damaging chemistry.

  35. I am making the allegation that the RAE has distorted priorities across the board in universities, and particularly in the non-Russell group of universities, and especially in the modern universities, the former polytechnics. I have demonstrated that some departments have closed, and you are suggesting there may be other reasons for that, which I accept; if that is the case, why have we needed in recent years special funds when HEFCE fund universities; why have we needed special funds, like the JIF, and more recently the SRIF, schemes, to replace the infrastructure in universities?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) I think that is entirely different. I think that the reason why we have needed those is the reason that I alluded to earlier, which is, the gap between the total amount of money. I think there is a serious issue, and just about funding, the total amount of money that is available and provided for research and the cost of that research. And the way that gap has been bridged by universities in the past has been by running down their infrastructure, sadly; and they ran it down to the point where we had a survey carried out, three or four years ago, which showed that the state of the science infrastructure in universities was parlous and put at risk our ability to compete on the world stage. That is the reason for the need for these massive and very welcome and very necessary injections of funds, like the JIF and the SRIF, which have put hundreds of millions, now billions, into the research infrastructure; they were necessary, but they were necessary not as a result of the RAE but as a result of the run-down in the research infrastructure, which came about from this funding gap that I have referred to.

  36. Can I make the allegation also that the RAE seems to have forced the best research staff into what we might describe as the better universities, or they would describe themselves as the better universities; I cite again the Russell group, Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, and so on. Are you favouring research universities and teaching universities, because that is the way it is going?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) No; but I do agree with your first proposition, I think there is an increasing concentration of staff, but it is department by department. As I said, it is a feature of selective funding that we provide more money to those departments which show themselves to be performing best, and the consequence that you have described follows. But we do that department by department, we provide funds selectively wherever the excellence arises, not looking at the university and deciding that this is a university that we should fund, fund disproportionately well, for research.

  37. I have always believed that teaching is important in every university, because a teacher who has knowledge of the front-line research in his, or her, subject, in my opinion, is a better teacher, and I think you might agree with me. So, if you have also agreed with the previous question, that they are forcing research into a select number of universities, are we therefore not in danger of damaging the teaching in the rest?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) I do not think there is any evidence for that, no, and I would agree with you only up to a point. I think it maybe a question of definition. I would suggest that scholarship, in the sense of, as you have said, keeping up with your subject, knowing where the frontiers of your subject are, is an essential part of being a professional in higher education, I agree with that. In the same way as applies to other professions, whether it is architecture, engineering, or whatever; but in teaching that is what you need to know, it is to know where the frontiers of your subject are, to keep up with that. But I think that is different from yourself pushing back the frontiers of the subject, which is what I would roughly describe as being research. I think there is a distinction between the two. I would agree with you that that is essential. I would say that that is part of the duty, almost, of a university academic, and that is provided for in our teaching funding.

  38. The Government are very keen on widening participation across the university sector, increasing the number of young people going into universities by up to 50 per cent, a very difficult target to achieve. How are we going to manage to widen participation in universities that appear to be concentrating heavily on research because of the Research Assessment Exercise, winning the five stars; are those universities, like Oxford and Cambridge, going to be able to concentrate on widening participation, like Bolton Institute does, in my constituency, or the University of Brighton does, perhaps?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) The aim of widening participation is one, I have to say, that we stand absolutely shoulder to shoulder with the Government on, we share fully. I would say, yes, widening participation, in the sense of opening their doors to all students, whatever their backgrounds, that are able to benefit from an education at the universities concerned, is the absolute duty of every university, and I think that they cannot back away from that. That is not to say that they are not entitled to set their standards, and there will be differences between different institutions; but, given that, then I think that there should be no question that absolutely they have to participate in the widening access activity and open their doors, regardless of the backgrounds of the students and where they come from, yes.

  Dr Iddon: Thank you. My final suggestion is that the Research Assessment Exercise has caused the emphasis of research to shift to projects that deliver short-term results and lots of publications, and my fear is that, lots of other projects, which require a lot of investment, in terms of time, and not a lot of output in publications, they are going by the wall in this country. And the case I always cite is the case of Professor Harry Kroto, the Nobel Prize winner, who researched a very difficult area for many years, but would not have been credited under the RAE, I am sure.

  Chairman: Neither would Watson and Crick, as a matter of fact.

  39. That is right; several people of that ilk. And how can people like that make their mark in modern universities?
  (Mr Bekhradnia) I think that is an important and serious point. First of all, can I just make it abundantly clear that producing loads of publications is not something that will win credit in the Research Assessment Exercise; the panels do not even know how many publications have been produced, they are not told. Institutions are asked to submit up to four, maximum four, pieces of work produced over the previous five years, seven years in the humanities; that is not a `publish or perish' requirement, nor ought it to lead to a view that they have just got to produce publications by the yard. Yes, we have to ensure that long-term work is not jeopardised. I do not believe, and I am at a disadvantage here because I am not a scientist, that to produce four publications in five years, in anything other than the most exceptional cases, would be—

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