Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 679 - 699)



  Q679  Chairman: Can I welcome Professor Diamond and Professor Petersen to the Committee's proceedings; we are very pleased to have two people of such outstanding reputation in the field of research. You are very well-known to us by reputation, but I do not think either of you have actually given evidence to the Committee.

  Professor Diamond: I gave evidence to the Committee three or four years ago.

  Q680  Chairman: I know you reasonably well, but I could not remember whether it was from the Committee or on other occasions. It was four years ago when we looked at universities before, so a return performance, Professor Diamond. Professor Petersen, you are also very welcome. You have an option here: we want to look at the long term stability of higher education and part of that is, of course, the research side of that. We want to hear from you how we can ensure that this country does have a viable research programme in the long term, not just in the short or medium term but in the long term, and how do we bring that about—who are the key people who could bring that about and if there are challenges, problems and concerns we want them really to be dragged out into the light of day so that we can think about them. You can say something for a couple of minutes to introduce your background and your knowledge and expertise in a way, as a thumbnail sketch, or we can get straight into questions. Which do you prefer?

  Professor Diamond: Whichever is easiest for you.

  Q681  Chairman: Why not say how you think we can have a sustainable higher education research programme going into the future?

  Professor Diamond: As you know, I am the Chief Executive of the Economic and Social Research Council, but I am also privileged and have been since 2003 to chair Research Councils UK, which is the consortium of all Research Councils working together to ensure and enhance UK research. We do so very much in partnership with the Funding Councils, with the higher education sector and indeed with all other stakeholders including business, government and industry. It is terribly important that this is a holistic issue, that we really have to work together. The Research Base Funders' Forum, which has now been going for three or four years, is actually a good way of bringing all the stakeholders together and there is, if you like, no one place where all research is funded from or strategised from, and that is entirely right and proper. At the same time what we have to do is ensure that we are complementary in the way that we look at things and that we are agile and able to identify barriers to great research taking place in the UK and then to remove them very quickly.

  Q682  Chairman: In a sense you have described a very interesting scene, if you like. We are very used to, as a scrutiny committee, scrutinising things for which the Department for Education and Skills has sole responsibility. This is a much more difficult area, is it not, because we have a whole number of organisations and departments involved in the research programme—indeed, the most recent is that we have seen the Treasury taking a great interest in this—but is there not a bit of you that would say that somebody somewhere has to have the overarching view, not interfering in research but having the kind of concept of looking at international competition, what is happening in terms of research in other competitor countries and having a kind of holistic view of what the future looks like?

  Professor Diamond: That is what the major stakeholders have to work together very carefully and very closely to do—that is what the vision was behind the Research Base Funders' Forum and it is actually making good progress and doing good things. At the end of the day though we have to remember that research is undertaken by researchers and the great ideas bubble up from researchers; what we have to do, as the organisers of the funders of research, is enable an environment where great researchers can (a) be developed, (b) flourish and (c) have the facilities and the access to the facilities in order to make that happen. That simply requires that we do accept that there are a multiple number of stakeholders and that they are complementary and co-ordinated in a coherent way.

  Q683  Chairman: Your organisation has that role and you feel comfortable that that is a good way of protecting the research budget and the research programmes for the future.

  Professor Diamond: I believe the Research Councils as a whole have a very important role to play; we do not have that role alone. We are a very important stakeholder, undoubtedly, as are the Funding Councils—that is why we attempt to work very, very closely with the Funding Councils. We believe very much in the dual support system. The higher education institutions themselves are obviously critical as autonomous institutions and in a number of very, very important research areas in this country the charities also play a very important role. That is why we must be absolutely clear in working together.

  Q684  Chairman: If someone was looking at the capacity, the potential, the holistic approach that I have described, it is going to be up to the Prime Minister politically, is it, he is the only person, the apex, who has that sort of responsibility across all departments?

  Professor Diamond: That is perhaps taking it a little high. What we do absolutely need to do is ensure that the right people meet together under the right leadership. I have mentioned the Research Base Funders' Forum three or four times already and I believe Keith O'Nions has done a very good job in chairing it. That fora does bring together the Research Councils, the Funding Councils, the regional development agencies, industry, government departments—DfES and DTI—and I am sure one or two other people whom I neglect to mention, not in a pejorative way but simply because my brain is not functioning that well.

  Q685  Chairman: Can I switch it to you, Professor Petersen, if all is well in this science realm why change it, why change a system that seems to be working relatively well? Why do people want to change it?

  Professor Petersen: You are referring to the proposed new system for research assessment?

  Q686  Chairman: Yes.

  Professor Petersen: I guess the Royal Society's view is that it should not have been changed, not changed as radically as the present proposals seem to imply. The basic point that we have made very clear when the responses were made to various relevant consultations, is that there is something intrinsically right about the present research assessment exercise. One may certainly worry about the details and the somewhat excessive bureaucracy around it, but the idea that you send a message to individual researchers, show us you four best papers, they will be read by your peers and evaluated by your peers, that is giving the right kind of message to individual scientists. Now it is supposed to be replaced by some formula-driven quantitative indicator, the type of situation in which citations or papers come in and these are secondary things now that are supposed to be assessed in the new system rather than the primary thing, the real research. There is something intrinsically right about it at present, for all its somewhat bureaucratic faults, and there is something intrinsically wrong about the new method of assessment that is being proposed. Of course, we have not seen the details and we are certainly eager to be involved in discussions about how it could still be operating as one way of informing peer review, but we do believe that there is no way you can really assess research outside what you may call the classical peer review process. It has faults, of course, it is a little bit expensive, it is time-consuming, but nobody has really come up with a better method of assessing research.

  Q687  Chairman: With the greatest respect is that not a little bit complacent between the two of you, Professor Diamond and Professor Petersen, because you are saying, Professor Diamond, we have this broad church where all these players come together and perform the relevant tasks, and Professor Petersen is saying we have a very good system, do not let us fix it. Surely there are people who have been giving advice to ministers, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and other people who must differ with you.

  Professor Diamond: I certainly would differ a little on behalf of the Research Councils with regard to the RAE, and if we wish to spend a little time on that I would be happy to give their view. I would not want to say that everything in the garden was just absolutely lovely and brilliant, leave it alone, but having said that we have to recognise that the UK science base at the moment is incredibly competitive globally; on any count, it is second only to the United States across the entire piece and in very many areas, sub-areas and areas of science, leading the world. We have to accept that as a really good place to be; there has been incredible investment in science in the last few years which we can really see the pay-off from, so it would be absolutely wrong, firstly, to say let us throw the baby away with the bathwater and start again. Having said that, there are incredible challenges coming down the road at the moment and if we simply said we are the best in the world or nearly the best in the world, let us just sit on our laurels and stay there, then we would be (a) making a huge mistake and (b) letting the very people down who are paying for this in the first place in the main, and that is the people of this country. We absolutely have to believe, as we do in the Research Councils passionately, that the only chance this country has got to become the country we want to be in 15 to 20 years time is to invest in science and for science to have the pay-off. There are a number of areas that we have really got to work in over the next few years in order to get there. One of them, if I may say so, concerns the RAE because we all recognise that the RAE over the last 20 years has played a role in increasing the quality of UK research. Having said that, the view of Research Councils is that as currently formulated it does not encourage and reward areas such as inter-disciplinary research, areas of research related to professional practice—I am thinking, for example, of education research which might have a real impact on educational policy or social care research having an impact on social work practice, for example. It does not reward properly innovation into industry, where one might spend a relatively large amount of time taking forward the results of a piece of research and turning it into something which might have impacts either on government policy or taking some new piece of exciting kit into the marketplace, but if you do that, that might be at the expense of your next academic paper, and we need properly to reward those kinds of areas. Those are challenges for changing and for updating the research assessment exercise that we really believe have to be taken. The Research Councils' view is that there is a role for a metric-based approach but one that maintains a degree of light touch of peer review in some of those areas that I have just described to you, and that is why we believe it is very important that we work hard across the piece with the Funding Councils, as we do, to ensure that the mechanism that is proposed to go forward post-2008 is one that all stakeholders feel comfortable about and which rewards the things that the nation wishes to reward from its research base.

  Q688  Chairman: Professor Petersen, do you agree with all of that?

  Professor Petersen: Not entirely. First of all, let me take your question about whether everything is wonderful. That was certainly not the implication of what I wanted to say; there are some serious problems about research in this country and first of all I would question that we are at this point in time the best country in the world in which to do research, which has been the stated objective of the Prime Minister and the Chancellor. I do not think it is the case. It is true that by many indicators we are doing very well; however, if you express these things in relation to the size of the country we are not number one. In Europe, in the biomedical field for example, Switzerland is by many accounts doing better than the UK, if you relate it to size. We forget that very often when we talk about the US being the best and we are number two or in some areas number one. It is not quite true; it depends on whether you look at the size. The amount of money that is spent on research in this country is absolutely insufficient to sustain that basis, one has to be absolutely clear about that. The Government is very proud of the increase in the amount of money that has been given to research over the last years; my personal view is that it has to some extent compensated for a number of very bad years under the previous Conservative administration, but in terms of funding rates we are by no means amongst the best. In relation to GDP, if I remember correctly, we are number 17 or something like that, so we are punching about our weight, we are doing relatively well in relation to the relatively poor level of funding, and by the poor level of funding I mean that in my own area, the biomedical area, an individual scientist who applies to the Medical Research Council for a grant has an 80% chance of being rejected, so four out of five grants are rejected at this point in time. This is an incredible waste of time for everybody. These are people who have been appointed in great competition to do their jobs. People say it must be competitive to get grants, but you can look at it the other way around and for a person who has been appointed to a job to do research, it is not an unreasonable expectation that this person who has been appointed as a lecturer in a university actually can do the job that he/she is appointed to do. Increasingly, he or she will be spending an enormous amount of time on repeat grant applications and so on, so there is not enough money in the system in relation to the number of people who work in the system, so there is a clear mismatch there which is inefficient. That has very clear implications for the sustainability of future research, which is the remit as I understand it, of this particular inquiry, so in that sense I would say to your question is everything rosy, no it is not. There is a need for a substantial increase in science funding and, considering that it is a tiny, tiny proportion of what the Government has to spend overall, it seems that it would be quite clever actually to substantially increase the science base.

  Professor Diamond: Can I just take the opportunity to say that right across the research base I would agree with Professor Petersen's point about success rates. Success rates are incredibly low right across the research base and the research that is not being funded includes an awful lot of research that would be absolutely impeccably world class and which, in past times, might have been funded, it would have delivered world class research and would have other academic and non-academic impacts on the economic development and quality of life in this country, so there really is a lack of funding still, despite the great advances that have been made in the last 10 years.

  Q689  Chairman: Should that extra funding only come from the Government or should it come from other sources?

  Professor Petersen: It could probably come from a combination of sources, but as far as basic research is concerned one has to recognise that there is an absolute need for government funding, there is no other way. I still want to come back to the other part of the question, namely the research assessment exercise in relation to some of the points that Professor Diamond made. I do not quite see how a move to metrics will help with some of the problems that Professor Diamond highlighted—inter-disciplinary research, education research, innovation and industry. All of these things will not be helped by metrics at all. In fact, it will be more difficult to assess them through metrics than it is in the present system, so I do not really understand that argument as an argument to move away from the present peer review system to a metrics-driven system. The present peer review system has much more inherent flexibility in terms of assessment and in taking up some of these points. We feel in the Royal Society that the best way would be a somewhat lighter touch than the present, but we must retain the subject-based panels and they can use certain quantitative indicators as a way of informing them, but the idea that you will be able to create a formula based on data in the public domain that could be used for the calculation of QR I think is basically flawed.

  Chairman: You do know that the Chairman's role is to warm you up. Everyone has warmed up so, David, would you like to continue?

  Q690  Mr Chaytor: You both defended the system of dual support but you have not said exactly what its strengths are or how it compares to the systems in some of our competitor countries, for example Switzerland. Do they have exactly the same system of dual support? What other models are there in Europe?

  Professor Petersen: It is true that not every country has a dual support system and certainly the biggest player, the US, does not have a dual support system, but it is generally recognised by many people that this is perhaps one of the particular advantages of this country, that we do have a dual support system.

  Q691  Mr Chaytor: What are these advantages?

  Professor Petersen: You have got to have, whatever you call it, some way of having a certain degree of stability in the system. If you were to base yourself exclusively—and the US model comes closest to that kind of situation—on money from grant bodies, from the research councils or from charities, you would potentially be in a quite vulnerable situation in terms of short term changes, since grants are given for three years or for five years—most are given for three years in most of the areas—which is a very short time. Grants are lost, grants are gained, people need time to do research and that time in a sense has to be paid for by the main employer which, in our country, is essentially the universities, and the universities need to have money in order to do that. In a sense dual support does exist in a way, although in most of continental Europe they do not call it that, in the sense that the universities have a certain amount of money, but the difference between our system and most of the continental European university systems is that we have a clear separation between teaching funding and research funding. Most of the continental European universities do not have this sharp distinction, which indeed we did not have a number of years ago. As soon as you introduce this distinction between teaching funding and research funding then obviously you have to create a mechanism whereby your research time is being paid for by somebody, and that in a sense is what the dual support system does at the moment. I mean, most of the QR money is simply salaries for people who spend their time doing research, so if you were to propose as an extreme example to abolish it and say we do not need it any more, since we have full economic costing, I understand the argument behind that, why do we need it, but then of course there is an immense problem in the sense where do these salaries come from and can these salaries be provided in a sustainable form. It is a reflection of the special system we have had here in this country which has considerable advantages, I have to say. The complete separation of teaching and research funding gives a degree of transparency about where money goes and how it is accounted for, and it has actually made universities much more efficient than they were before. In the old days when I came to this country from Denmark and became head of department in Dundee first, most people who were not actually researchers could say "I am working on this and this and results will come in eventually and I do not want to do more teaching than person C who does a lot of research because my things are on the way." There was no assessment in that sense so everybody did more or less the same amount of teaching irrespective of whether they were very research-active or not. Now we have a system where it is quite transparent who is delivering in one area and who is delivering in another area, so we do need the dual support system in one form or the other, otherwise I simply do not see how research-intensive universities will be able to sustain themselves. It is a very substantial amount of money, it is between one-third and two-thirds of university funding that comes through QR, at the moment driven by the research assessment exercise. It is not a small amount of money and so it is quite important, and this is why it is important to think about the research assessment exercise, which actually drives it.

  Q692  Mr Chaytor: Could I ask Professor Diamond specifically, is there a sense that it leads to fragmentation and have we ever been able to provide a unified approach to the development of research? Is the dual support system holding us back in that way?

  Professor Diamond: I do not think it does. One thing that is absolutely inherent on a dual support system is that you do not have, if you like, silo-based funding, so if the Research Councils did not talk to the Funding Councils I think you would have potentially some problems, but the one thing it can assure you of is the Research Councils spend a lot of time talking to the Funding Councils and I can point to four or five examples at any time where there is joint activity because we believe it is necessary so to do. The other areas that are important for the dual support system are that in some way you have to have some kind of flexibility within the higher education system for things like seed corn funding to happen and for people to develop new ideas. That is what the QR allows. One area though, to return to something we have already discussed, which has in some areas been a negative aspect has been the extent to which the rewards mechanism by which you get QR funding has privileged and rewarded those places which appointed new staff because something is staff-based. If you appoint someone new then you get funding based on the output of that person and that, I believe, potentially has led to people being appointed rather than, for example, the more strategic approach of using the money to build a new team or something. Certainly, some researchers have argued to the ESRC that it is very difficult to get on the ladder in the first place, because until you have got some publications you cannot actually get higher and there is a real challenge to us in developing the new generation to ensure the dual support works. Dual support works in this country because the Funding Councils and the Research Councils work together and both believe in it.

  Q693  Mr Chaytor: But if they work together so well, why do their respective reforms of the funding methodology appear to have been done in isolation? The Research Councils reform of its peer review method does not seem to have taken any account of the reforms to the RAE. Is that a fair criticism?

  Professor Diamond: I do not think it is. They are doing different things in many ways so that the RAE looks backwards at work which has taken place, it is peer reviewed in a way by a group of learned people. The Research Councils look forward and try to pick the best opportunities, again using peer review, and the final report on the Research Councils' peer review exercise comes out in the next six or seven weeks or so, I am happy to talk about the results of that if you so wish to. That has involved consultation with the Funding Councils during its work in exactly the same way as the consultants to the review of the RAE and the HEFCE manager managing it are currently meeting all Research Councils and will be meeting the director of the Research Councils' peer review project in the next week or so.

  Q694  Mr Chaytor: Given the extraordinarily high cost of the processing of applications through the Research Councils and the very high failure rate, do you think the review of your methodology will inevitably lead to a reduced share of funding going through the Research Councils?

  Professor Diamond: It is a very good point and a very interesting point that you have raised there. Many people might disagree with your statement that the cost of the Research Councils' peer review was high; certainly I think many people would disagree that it was high relative to the RAE. Certainly one thing on which I would agree with you is that there is no way that you can compare the costs of peer review as found by the Research Councils with the costs of the RAE as currently publicised, it is apples and pears. It will be a very, very different question to compare the two and that piece of research, was there a need to do it, could be done, but it has not been done, so we do not have those data first of all.

  Q695  Mr Chaytor: If I can just say, you are spending £196 million to allocate £1 billion, so your administrative costs are 20% of the total.

  Professor Diamond: Let us just think through what that £196 million is. All except just under £10 million of that takes place in the higher education sector, so the actual direct administrative costs of the Research Councils are under £10 million per annum. The rest of it, the great majority of the rest of it, is the cost of developing and preparing the proposals; in other words the time that academics have reported to us in a large survey that was done, that they spent, thinking about and working with their teams on, the new research that they are going to do. Let us just take a hypothetical example where we took all of this out and we simply said to a university there is some money, give it to team X to do some research, to do what they want. If you did that they would still have to spend that time, I would suggest, from my experience of a little under 25 years of research, thinking about and developing the proposal, so that has been built into the model. At the same time what we have done is looked at our processes through this peer review report and said are there areas where we could make life easier for researchers, could we increase the amount of money and the amount of time that we give research grants for, could we increase the use of outlines, could we think about resubmission. Could we streamline and simplify the final report process? We have reviewed all those and we are definitely going to streamline the final report process, we are reviewing across the councils at the moment the possibilities for a number of other areas including what we call consolidation—in other words enabling some groups to have longer or bigger grants. I suspect that all councils will take on some of those aspects where appropriate, and the expectation we have at the moment is that when we release the results of the report, as well as celebrating UK peer review—because the one thing that came to us from all our consultations, consultations with the Council for Science and Technology, consultation with the Funding Councils, consultation with all the higher education sector, was a real confidence in UK peer review as the best way of allocating competitive research funding and a real belief that the UK peer review system stands up extremely well against anywhere else in the world. However, at the same time we have identified efficiency savings and we will, through this report, be able to reduce somewhat that £190 million.

  Q696  Mr Chaytor: Finally, would you expect then, following the changes you have described, that the success rate will increase from 28% or thereabouts, or is that still a major problem for you.

  Professor Diamond: Many Research Councils, including my own, are below 20%.

  Q697  Mr Chaytor: Do you see that as inefficient or does that give thinking time and preparation time for researchers?

  Professor Diamond: It would be nice to increase success rates. The one thing that Research Councils can do a little bit about is the numerator of the success rate; there is not an enormous amount one can do necessarily about the denominator. I understand that people who have talked to you have said the one thing they would not like us to do—for example, I know that Alan Gilbert said this, reading your transcript—that they would not be in favour of universities having quotas. That came very strongly across to us and we have taken that out of our options. I cannot say, therefore, that we will see an increase in success rates.

  Q698  Chairman: When someone applies unsuccessfully that is part of the cost, the 80% of the effort in producing the projects and programmes.

  Professor Petersen: It is not quite a waste of time, one has to say.

  Q699  Chairman: Obviously it is not a waste of time.

  Professor Diamond: It is not completely and one of the things that, as a senior research leader, one gets used to is sitting down with one's junior colleagues sometimes—it is a really sad experience for people to get a grant rejected—and saying how are we going to take this forward, let us look at the referee's comments, is there somewhere else we could get this funded, and if it is a very, very good idea then you have to work to try and get it funded, so it may not be completely wasted time. There is wasted time in then having to revise and send it somewhere else.

  Professor Petersen: If I may make one point really in relation to the peer review, it is very, very difficult to apportion exactly the amount of time spent on peer review in different spheres, but what one has to realise is that peer review in all it forms means a very major amount of time spent by academics. In fact, probably, most of the peer review time is spent in the world of publication which is not accounted for by anybody but is a very significant amount of time for individual scientists; every time you submit a paper to a journal these days, mostly it comes back asking for revision and if you are unlucky and it has rejection you have to rewrite it for another journal et cetera. It is part of the whole scientific process and there are clearly overlapping spheres here in that a lot of the time spent dealing with peer review in the journal world is of course overlapping with the amount of time you are spending on peer review in the grant world, so a lot of the data that you have about how much time is spent on peer review for one particular type of activity if you added them all up probably would be more than 100% of an academic's time, I guess. The data we have in terms of what is actually spent on peer review—I would certainly think it is very difficult to get the right amount. One has to simply understand that peer review in all its different forms is an intrinsic part of the academic world.

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