Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Institute of Physics

  1.  In December, the results of the latest Research Assessment Exercise were published. In most subjects, the number of higher grades had increased compared to the 1996 Exercise. In physics, over 78 per cent of academic physicists were found to work in departments that contained work of international excellence. 29 of the UK's 49 physics departments are now doing research of a higher quality than five years ago. The Institute is of the view that the current round has captured the true international calibre of research in physics in the United Kingdom. It is a much more accurate assessment of the overall quality of physics research than that which had previously emerged—complementing the conclusion of the International Review of Physics Research.[4]

  2.  The RAE has undoubtedly been successful in focussing university departments on the need to produce—and continue to produce—high-quality research. The need now, in all subjects, is to create an environment and provide the funding to allow research to thrive, for top-rated departments to maintain their standards, and for others to strive for improvement. The dual support system is an essential pre-requisite for this to occur.

  3.  The Institute believes that the five-year cycle of the RAE has fulfilled its purpose. It is now up to Government to ensure that departments operating at the highest levels have the necessary funding to continue to produce high-quality work, and those below this level have adequate funds to enable them to improve. This requires additional funds to be placed at the disposal of the Funding Councils.

  4.  The assessment of research in academe is valuable, but the Institute believes that, in future, full assessments should be carried out every decade, with the possibility of a 'light-touch' review every five years. Such an approach would enable Government and the Funding Councils to show confidence in the ability and ambition of our academic researchers to continue to produce high quality research output.

  5.  The Institute proposes that any department, which has invested in new facilities and/or staff and which wishes to improve its rating, should be able to apply, with the appropriate Funding Council's approval, at intervals of no less than three years, for a re-assessment. Such a procedure would be an incentive for even further improvement in the quality of UK research, but it is important that a fair comparison with the previous assessment exercise is assured.

  6.  The RAE has succeeded in improving the overall quality of research in the UK. The unanswered question is whether the concentration on research output has had a detrimental effect on other aspects of Higher Education, for example teaching and the exploitation of research. The Teaching Quality Exercise which was carried out for UK physics department in 1998-2000 found teaching of physics universally to be of a high quality. There is concern, however, that innovations in teaching and learning are not being given as much attention as required. By contrast, in the USA, there is a long tradition, which continues, of innovation in the teaching of physics and other subjects at the undergraduate level—much more than has ever been seen in the UK, but particularly in the past few years.

  7.  The Institute has two further concerns:

    The first is the inexorable pressure to reduce the funding for departments currently rated 3a or lower. While such departments are not judged to be producing internationally competitive research, there are individuals and groups who are probably operating at a higher level of research than the departmental rating would imply. These need to be identified, encouraged and supported to continue with their endeavours.

    The second is the need to recognise more fully, in future assessment exercises, that an increasing amount of research is interdisciplinary in nature, and that fully appropriate assessment mechanisms must therefore be adopted

  8.  In many lower rated departments there is much significant work being carried out which, in many instances, has applications to local services and facilities, such as hospitals and industries. The Government and Funding Councils have to grasp the nettle of how to support such work. A possibility is that "the third-leg" and other funding streams be enhanced substantially to encourage the work of these departments, which should not be competing for funds with others which are carrying out research of an international standard.

January 2002

4   International Perceptions of UK Research in Physics and Astronomy (2000), a review sponsored by EPSRC, PPARC, The Institute of Physics and The Royal Astronomical Society. Back

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