Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 700 - 719)



  Q700  Fiona Mactaggart: Professor Petersen, you said that you can name two advantages of the present system—and I am sure you can think of others—stability and transparency. It struck me that a more stable, more transparent and much cheaper system would be not to have Research Councils. Looking at the paper by the Higher Education Policy Institute, which put this thesis—just imagine that instead of using the Research Councils' peer review system one simply calculated the share of the total investment in research which each university had to come and they just issued that over the five year period between 2000 and 2005. They then worked out how the different Research Councils' work changed it and they calculated that over that four year period operating peer review meant that 79 universities shared an extra £158 million redistributed from 61 universities who between them lost the same amount. If it costs £196 million a year to do peer review, that means that Research Councils UK spent £784 million on redistributing £158 million. Okay, it is a theoretical calculation but actually there is a point to it, is there not?

  Professor Petersen: There may be a point to it but to my way of thinking it is somehow not quite addressing the central point. I think the central point is to create a system where people really think hard about what they want to do and where they are exposed to peer review criticism. You are focusing on the cost of it, but the process itself has actually an enormous amount of—

  Q701  Fiona Mactaggart: But the taxpayer is paying for it.

  Professor Petersen: It is not the waste that many people think, and this is why I make the point that peer review is an intrinsic part of the whole academic process, you simply cannot think it away, it has to be there, and if it is not there in relation to competition for Research Council funding it is there in relation to competition for getting papers published in the best journals, so you have to think through these things. These figures are very soft figures, quite frankly, because they are just based on what people report on the number of hours they do and as we know, quite frankly, we all have to do these time sheets in universities where you write down whatever you feel like because it really is almost meaningless. If you look at the overall figures[10] you might say this is a stupid way of doing it, but when you look into the details it is actually quite an intelligent way of doing it. People are focusing very, very clearly on a particular task that they would like to solve and they are forced to present that in a form that can be understood by other people. It is exposed to criticism by the community, it is being refined and finally you do the work. It is a process that actually works extremely well. If you just distributed money without this kind of peer review process we would see over the next 25 to 30 years a dramatic decline in the standards of science done in this country. That would be my judgment.

  Professor Diamond: Could I also just take the opportunity to remind you of the point that I did make, and that is that the cost to the Research Councils of the peer review system is under £10 million per annum and that if you wished to do the same holistic costing of the RAE process you would find a very, very large sum because the sorts of things that would have to be included would be the sorts of things that Professor Petersen has already described in terms of the peer review of publications, the time that is actually taken to get those publications together, so we really do need to be absolutely careful in comparing like with like if we are actually trying to make the sort of comparisons that were being made in the paper you described.

  Q702  Fiona Mactaggart: What Professor Petersen has said is that the data about how much time academics are spending doing things and so on is very soft, almost meaningless, and they write what they feel like. That actually rang all sorts of alarm bells in my head as someone whose responsibility is public accountability, to make sure that the taxpayer is being told the truth, does understand what is going on. It sounds to me as though you are saying we have this private little arrangement in universities where we make it up.

  Professor Petersen: It is almost the other way around I think. What people do not realise is that there is intrinsic stupidity in the system. For example, we are only allowed, when we are making up our time, to work 37½ hours per week and most academics I know work 70 hours per week. You simply are not allowed. When we have to send back to our university how many hours we spend on different things, the system simply does not allow you to say what is true, that you will spend 70 hours per week, so the whole system is not working properly but in terms of accountability I would say that you get fantastic value for money from academics actually because people work like mad for very, very poor salaries, so I would not worry too much about public accountability. People are excited about what they do and they work quite in excess. Maybe the only other category of people who work as hard are politicians actually, there is no other category.

  Q703  Fiona Mactaggart: Do not misunderstand me, I was not trying to say that academics are lazy, what I was trying to say is that the public does not know the truth about what they do.

  Professor Petersen: That is true at many different levels and the reason is simply that the systems are designed in such a way that they cannot be used properly. I gave you just one example, that you can only work so many hours when in fact most people work almost twice that many hours. The other thing that makes it genuinely difficult is, as I said, the overlapping activities. You can put down one particular activity under one heading but you could also have put it down under anther heading, so in a sense this sort of idea which I can understand to make things transparent and accountable comes into some kind of difficulty. Also, the exact separation of teaching and research is not straightforward. You talk to PhD students and you discuss results with them; is it teaching or is it research? They are overlapping activities. There are many, many intrinsic problems in these things and I understand that one would like to be able to get a very clear-cut answer to these various things, but in reality it is much, much more difficult. Trust is an important element of our system and one of the problems in the ordinary culture that we live in at the moment is that nobody is supposed to trust anybody else, and that is intrinsically a very, very big problem actually. Most academics work extremely hard and they do their very best under sometimes challenging circumstances, and these kinds of orders that are imposed upon them as to how many hours on this activity and that activity, it is, in some cases very, very difficult to separate one activity from the other one; they are overlapping to a very large extent.

  Q704  Fiona Mactaggart: Your point about trust brings me back to the first suggestion that a simpler mechanism for allocating resources might be cheaper and more effective, where you trusted the institutions on the basis of their record.

  Professor Diamond: There is a huge degree of trust and that is the QR element, but one thing that you absolutely have to enable is the very best research to be funded wherever it is funded. That does not mean that you have a system whereby only one place is an institute for, shall we say, a particular type of science; therefore, if you are within an individual institution, trying to make decisions about whether to fund individual X who looks quite interesting but is a junior colleague working on an exciting new area against individual Y working in a completely different area, you probably do not have the skills in that institution to judge that. On the other hand, by it being possible for those people to go to competitive peer review, where they will get international quality peer reviewing, from both the best people in this country and the best people overseas, where their work will be tensioned against similar types of work from other institutions, then we have a really strong and extremely high class peer review system which enables us to fund the very best science in a competitive way. It is a competitive world given the budget constraints that we have, which enables the UK to continue to be at the very height of global science, and that is an essential element. I absolutely agree with what Professor Petersen has said that if you did not have that the system would carry on for five years. In 20 to 25 years—and I have no evidence for the statement I am about to make, clearly—I suspect that you would see a great reduction in the quality of UK science.

  Chairman: Let us move on. Thank you for that and thank you for your kind remarks, Professor Petersen, about hard-working politicians. Helen.

  Q705  Helen Jones: You are both scientists used to proceeding on the basis of evidence and proper research and you have told us what this change to a metrics-based system is supposed to do, but where is the evidence that it will actually do what it is setting out to do?

  Professor Petersen: I do not think there can be evidence that it will do what it is setting out to do. One problem that scientists particularly are very familiar with is what you may call the paradox that if you want to measure something you are inevitably also influencing what you are measuring, and the metrics system is an extremely good example of that. At the moment it is undeniable that there is, broadly speaking, a certain correlation between what is perceived by peer review to be good quality research and citation rates—in a very crude way there is a certain degree of correlation of course and the people who are very highly cited are generally the people who also the community will regard as very good scientists. However, if we now suppose that we are creating a new system for assessment of research quality, which will influence QR distribution based on the plans the Government has been proposing, based on quantitative indicators that are in the public domain, then of course for example citation rates which have been mentioned as one important parameter will be signposted to everybody as an important parameter that people have to think about. What many people who do not work in the field may not realise is that for most people, for the vast majority, even a lot of good people, the citation rates are not very high, so the absolute numbers are quite small. The young scientist who has been in the field for about five or six years may have something like 20 to 30 citations per year, very small numbers in absolute terms, some people of course who have been in the system for a long time and are recognised will have quite different numbers, but a large part of the system will have absolute small numbers. They can be very easily manipulated; suppose 10 scientists in different institutions decide that they will create a little mutual citation group and that they will cite each other's work more, then these small numbers can be changed quite dramatically, so numbers that perhaps at the moment would appear with many, many teaspoons of salt to be useful, could become completely useless in a couple of years because this system has been manipulated. This is the danger of taking a secondary parameter rather than having the peer review at the moment that is actually looking at trying to assess what is the quality of the work that has actually been produced. The other point—and I made that point in an opinion piece I was asked to write for The Times Higher Education Supplement which came out just before Christmas—is that citation rates have almost no predictive value, so if you are going to try to think about what will be the future it takes many, many years for citations to accumulate. I gave a specific example there of a close colleague of mine, Bert Sakmann from the Max Planck Institute in Germany, who is a Nobel Laureate; he made his breakthrough in 1980/81 and peer review instantly recognised that this was really big progress, but if you look at the citation rates for several years after that they were modest, respectable, nothing more than that; 15 years later they were spectacular but then he got a Nobel Prize and everybody could see anyway that he was great. This citation game, therefore, is something that will turn out to be quite frankly useless, and it is very, very dangerous that the Government has somehow, it seems to me, hitched itself to that wagon.

  Professor Diamond: There are a number of issues that need to be made here. The first point the Research Councils would make is that there are very many different metrics that should be taken into account and one needs firstly, in a system, to identify exactly what it is that one is trying to reward and to recognise, and that was a point that I made earlier. Where I would agree with Professor Petersen is that simple citation rates will not, on their own, answer many of the questions that we would as Research Councils wish to reward; having said that they remain for some areas, certainly for the stem subjects, an area which is recognised as being useful—not alone but useful.

  Q706  Helen Jones: Can I just stop you there because Professor Petersen says that they can be so easily manipulated, so how can you have something which is useful in assessing research if, as has just been quoted to us, someone who eventually got the Nobel Prize did not have a very high citation rate.

  Professor Diamond: There is an enormous amount of data on, for example, time to citation rates or the speed of citation rates over time. There is some excellent work that has been done at the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex, for example, which looks at the time by different disciplines from publication to citation rates, and you see an increase and then it flattens out, and certainly there will be examples where I am sure they subsequently pick up. I do not know the extent to which a small group could get together and massively influence citation rates for a particular journal, but certainly I do know that the Higher Education Funding Council for England in taking forward this review of the research assessment exercise is working with some of the very best researchers on bibliometry in the world—I know that their consultants are those from the University of Leiden who are absolutely excellent—who will be advising them, I am sure, on all those issues, but I stress that I do not see citation rates as being the only index. Certainly, Research Councils' view is that citation rates would not be the only metric that we would recommend because they will not reward and recognise all the areas, and that is why one will need a basket of metrics, and one of the things you have to do is identify what it is you are trying to reward and to recognise and to provide a set of metrics which are universally accepted and which will do that. Let me also say that I have said very clearly right across the piece that the Research Councils believe that in addition to this basket of metrics which should inform any measure of quality, there will be the need for an element of peer review, light touch peer review, and certainly we believe that that is likely to be different in different disciplines. If I just give you an example, currently the citation rates which are widely used are based on one large database. In the 2001 Research Assessment Exercise, for the very great majority of subjects such as chemistry or physics—well over 90% I understand—of the outputs which were submitted to that exercise were included in the database. In other areas, particularly in the social sciences, the arts and humanities, of the outputs that were submitted a very much lower proportion were included in that international database because of the greater incidence of the use of things like monographs, which are not in the database as a research output, inter-disciplinary research publications which may not be in those outputs, and the fact that the database does not use some major UK journals. So there are very good reasons why one would not want to move solely to a measure of citation, but where you need to use the very best bibliometricians in the world to advise you on what the appropriate use of bibliometrics might be to inform the basis, but I stress that simple bibliometrics are not the only metric which should be used, one needs a basket of metrics based on first deciding what it is you are trying to reward.

  Q707  Helen Jones: Can you just tell me what you mean by light touch peer review, where you think it might be useful and where it would not be useful?

  Professor Diamond: Sure. Let me give you an example of the area of policy. You may wish to try to find a mechanism which rewards research which has really had an impact on, shall we say, policy in some areas. It is actually quite difficult to say has this research impacted on a new Government bill or has it impacted on some kind of policy in a big way? That is the sort of thing that you might like some research experts to look at and take a view on. You may also want to recognise the fact that some journals have much higher impact factors, if that were to be used (and I do not know that it would) than other journals, so you might want to have people just overseeing the results that would come from a quantitative analysis of metrics, fine-tuning them in a transparent way. We could look at many, many examples of that. If one metric was to be research income, you would not want to disadvantage a group of entirely theoreticians, if you like, in the area of physics, who may not need as much research income to undertake their research. That is when you need the peer review to come in on top. What the Research Councils would argue is that you can simplify the bureaucracy of a quality assessment by including and informing your quality assessment through a basket of metrics but we do not believe you can get away with it completely.

  Q708  Helen Jones: Can I ask Professor Petersen if he agrees with that argument, because it seems to me, Professor Diamond, you talked about transparency there but some of the things you cited—for instance, where the research had influenced policy—are very difficult to review transparently. We know from working here how many things go into making a parliamentary Bill, for instance. Is it possible to do those sorts of things?

  Professor Petersen: It seems to me that Professor Diamond has given very good arguments for retention of the subject based panels and for peer review. We agree in the Royal Society that these quantitative indicators can be used to a certain extent by knowledgeable people in the areas where you can make sure that you compare like with like. The formula based approach which one senses is what the Government would like to produce, has enormous dangers and would be totally unable to deal with any of the problems that Professor Diamond quite rightly put forward. The problem is in terms of bibliometrics, which a lot of the discussion has focused on, because it is one of the few areas where you can get quantitative measures. For many years to come, it will be in a precarious state. Professor Diamond has already alluded to databases not being complete in many areas. Other things are in a very difficult state. For example, there are two categories of research articles. There are original articles that give new research findings and there are review articles which generally speaking have much higher citation rates than original articles. If one bases any assessment on citation, that would be a temptation on behalf of individual scientists. They would write more review articles rather than do the original articles based on the grants that they have. In principle, the databases allow you to distinguish between review articles and original articles but all of us who have tried it out realise it does not work. It counts certain things in one category and it does not work in another category. There is no way a person who is not knowledgeable in that field will be able to make that distinction. The idea that somebody somewhere in a public database will do it does not work. People could be influenced by aggregates if a number of people decided to spend more time, for example, writing review articles rather than original articles. There are a lot of areas where we can go into the detail. I am not even sure that the bibliometrics people are the people who would necessarily know about it. The people who know about it are the scientists who work in that field who use these databases. I use them a great deal myself because I have to do a lot of assessments. I am very much aware of the really serious problems that underlie this approach. I would be somewhat critical of thinking that people who work in these various science policy units really know about these things. My feeling is that they may not know a lot about the deficiencies in the system.

  Professor Diamond: You asked what evidence would be used and I think it is entirely right that what the Funding Councils have done is to take evidence from the very best bibliometricians on what can be done. That has to be tensioned by a real analysis across the stakeholders as to how that is appropriate. You have spoken to Professor Eastwood and I am sure he gave a much more lucid answer than I did. I do not think it is the intention that people, for example, bibliometricians, would simply do the allocation of funding. It is simply one piece of evidence that should be used in putting a basket of metrics together which would enable us to simplify the bureaucracy somewhat and get what we really want from a quality research base.

  Q709  Helen Jones: I understand that although I am not convinced at the moment that any of this is simplifying bureaucracy. We have heard about problems with the present system, for instance, that it has bias against applied research; it does not reward interdisciplinary work and so on. Can you give the Committee your thoughts on where this new system will deal with those problems?

  Professor Petersen: There is absolutely no reason why the new system should be better at dealing with this than the present system. There are a lot of arguments that it would be exactly the opposite. The present peer review system allows flexibility. In a sense, it is just a question of signposting to the peer reviewers what you would like them to look at and it can be done. If you have a formula based approach, you are in a much more difficult situation. It is intrinsic in that system that you cannot deal with a lot of areas that clearly are not so well defined and cannot be defined at the moment. That is the crux of the matter and I would urge the Committee to think very carefully about that. By dispensing with the subject based panels, you are entering into something very dangerous.

  Professor Diamond: It is very difficult until the Funding Councils have concluded the results of a review, which is trying to identify the way forward and a basket of metrics which will enable us to simplify things. Then we can have a serious discussion about whether that has been achieved and whether we have achieved what we are trying to achieve. An enormous amount of evidence by the very best people is being taken to inform that debate. The Funding Council is working very hard to enable that debate to be taken forward. I personally would not want to prejudge in any way the results of that. The Research Councils will look very carefully at the results when they come out and will engage in a full discussion of the approach. We all know what we are trying to achieve, which is to reduce the bureaucracy and to reward a wider range of activities in a way that we believe has not been done thus far by the Research Assessment Exercise.

  Q710  Chairman: It is six months since we had the written submissions from yourselves. Quite a lot has changed since then. Professor Diamond, you just mentioned a great deal of work and expertise. If any of that has changed, we would like to know about it and we would like to know if you have come across witnesses that we ought to interview. We live on good information so we need your help on that. It is six months since we announced this inquiry and quite a lot has happened since that time.

  Professor Diamond: I have looked at the 23 people that you have met before us and I think you have covered the bases pretty well.

  Professor Petersen: I would agree with that.

  Q711  Stephen Williams: Would it be fair to say that whatever the system of an RAE, whether it is the existing system or a slightly different system for 2008, it distorts the behaviour of university departments and whatever the system they will work the system to get the best financial outcome?

  Professor Diamond: It has to be the case that if you have a reward mechanism in place people will try to maximise the reward they get from it. That is human nature. That is what we should expect to happen. That is why I believe you need to be very clear about how you will reward and recognise different elements of a system that you wish to achieve.

  Q712  Stephen Williams: Do you think the assessment system distorts behaviour in staffing deployment? I was talking to the head of a department in a Russell Group university recently and he said it was something like the football transfer market. When you are coming up to an RAE, you take in as many good staff as you can. You are willing to pay good salaries to get them. Once you are in the RAE period, you do not want any new staff. You do not want to lose staff. You just want stability and you want to be assessed on that. Is that not perverse?

  Professor Diamond: That is anecdotal evidence.

  Q713  Stephen Williams: I have heard it from more than one place.

  Professor Diamond: I have heard it in a number of places. What I have not seen is evidence which demonstrates the major impact that that is having on the community as a whole. Where it has been argued that there has been an impact is where people have not been encouraged to engage in high risk interdisciplinary research which an take time to develop. You simply do not get sociologists who sit down with a chemist to take forward a really exciting, new, cross-disciplinary area and expect research to happen in five minutes. It takes time and people have to invest a lot of time in something which may not come off. Those sorts of behaviours are not encouraged in a system which rewards simple disciplinary publications. In some areas people have worked very hard to focus on particular areas of a sub-discipline because they believe that will be rewarded properly. There is anecdotal evidence of that too. We have seen behaviour influenced, which has not been good for the economic development or the quality of life of the people of this country sometimes. That is why the Research Councils as a whole have argued that we need a system which properly rewards applied research, research related to professional practice, interdisciplinary research and research which really does have an economic development impact.

  Professor Petersen: The dangers of the sort of transfer market that you refer to have been perhaps slightly exaggerated. I do not think one should say that it has necessarily been wholly negative. It is just another part of the competitive world, I guess. It is not necessarily such a bad thing that universities are forced to look after their best researchers and make sure that they do not go elsewhere. There are negative and positive points about the behaviour. Of course it is massively influenced by any kind of assessment system. In our submission we make that point very forcefully. The trick is to encourage the right kind of behaviour and that is where we have great worries about the new system that is based on the formula based, metrics driven approach. The present system, for all its faults, does signpost the essential thing to the scientists, namely to produce good science; whereas the new system will look at secondary parameters rather than primary ones. The change in behaviour that would happen if one were to switch to the new system would be much for the worst and I see no arguments anywhere that the kind of problems that Professor Diamond highlights, that the present RAE system does not reward, would in any way be helped by a new metrics driven approach. It is absolutely not the case.

  Q714  Stephen Williams: Would it be fair to say that the evidence is anecdotal on the behavioural implications of an RAE at the moment because we do not know enough?

  Professor Diamond: Exactly. I do not know of a real study which has looked at the impact that you describe. The one thing that is very clear is that the costs of the current RAE are immense and very rarely calculated.

  Q715  Stephen Williams: Immense to the universities themselves?

  Professor Diamond: Exactly so. Very many universities go through one or two dummy runs over a period of time. I do not know how many universities do that. I am told very often as I move around universities that we have just been through a dummy run on our research assessment exercise and we have brought in consultants to advise us on the position. If we were to include those in the costs of the RAE, you would see a very big increase in the overall costs. That is why trying to reduce the overall costs through a lighter touch approach and one informed by a basket of metrics is an extremely good and welcome approach.

  Professor Petersen: The costs of the RAE have been somewhat exaggerated and again it relates to a point that I made before of overlapping activities. A lot of the work that goes on in universities in preparing for the RAE is work that would have to be done in any case because it is a question of how the university promotes its own research, how it selects those areas that are valuable or not. A lot of this is activity that at the moment comes under the RAE heading and people say it is terribly expensive; but if the RAE did not exist it would have to occur anyway in the university system. Secondly—and this is a paradox—everybody agrees that the present Research Assessment Exercise has considerably improved the UK's research performance. Professor Diamond himself referred to that. If we put these things together, it is not absolutely clear what the intellectual argument is for changing it radically into something that is totally different and is a secondary rather than a primary parameter.

  Professor Diamond: If you wish to take out the sorts of things I have just said are the costs of the RAE, to go back to the points that David and Fiona made earlier. Therefore you have to say that the cost of peer review to the Research Councils is under £10 million a year, not the figure that we calculated, because the figure that we calculated was the holistic cost which included all the sorts of things that I mentioned to you, which Professor Petersen suggested we ought not to include. That is a really good example of the point I was trying to make. If you wish to compare like with like, you have to be very clear and careful about what it is that you are including in the costs.

  Q716  Stephen Williams: Professor Petersen, I was struck by your mutual citation group. That rather implied to me that you think it would be easier for departments to distort behaviour, to get a favourable outcome under a metric system, than under the existing system which does have peer reviews. Is that a fair summary of what you are saying?

  Professor Petersen: Yes, that is right. In one case you are telling people, "Show us your best papers. They will be read by your peers and experts and they will judge whether they are really important, new and true", the three classical criteria for research excellence. That has to be the gold standard. If you are replacing that with a lot of secondary things, plainly you are not going to the heart of the matter any more. These quality parameters can be distorted. They will certainly influence behaviour. There is no way they could not influence behaviour. We do not know in which direction. We still have to be very careful. The present RAE, for all its faults—and everybody agrees on this—has substantially improved the UK's research performance.

  Q717  Stephen Williams: I guess that means that perhaps the Royal Society as well would lament the loss of peer review on stem subjects. Do you think it is too late to reargue the case that peer review should be retained?

  Professor Petersen: This is an interesting reflection of how things work in society: when we made our original submission to the DfES consultation on the future of the Research Assessment Exercise, we took the strong view that peer review is essential to the process and most other organisations agreed with us. Then the Government announced that they were not going to do it that way. They were going to use a metric based approach and some organisations immediately shifted and said, "Fine. Of course this is a good idea." We do not see any reason why we should change our opinion. This is the truth as we see it and we have to continue to argue that. I still hope that there is enough common sense in the system that one will not throw out the subject based panels which have been the keystone of assessment and which are the only ones that can assess this basket of metrics. We all agree that you can use metrics to a certain extent, to inform peer review, but you cannot just put it into a formula and expect this to work.

  Q718  Chairman: In a slightly throw away line you said, "the Research Assessment Exercise, for all its faults . . .". Have you articulated where you would get rid of all those faults and still retain the essential RAE package?

  Professor Petersen: In our written submission, we make the point that it has become over-cumbersome over the years. It started out by being a much more manageable exercise. Because of complaints about this and that and then you introduced a new element, gradually it was built up and became a very complex exercise. There might be something to be said for going back to the original model which was much simpler. In essence, what has taken all the time in the university system is to write the narratives and one could dispense with those narratives to a very large extent and just look at the best papers because that is what matters. "What have you produced in that time?" It is, as Professor Diamond started out by saying, a review of what has been achieved. That is what we need to look at. This waste is in the time the universities are spending, on trying to refine those narratives in that they might marginally improve your assessment a little bit, although in reality it is the output that is judged. These are the faults but, at its heart, there is something intrinsically right about the way it works because it says—and all academics know this—"Show me your best papers. I will read your four best papers and I will make my judgment about what you have done".

  Professor Diamond: If you do that, you would not have the opportunity to have any proper review of the impact on policy in government, business, local authorities, education and schools. You would not have any proper assessment of, for example, the development of interdisciplinary research. You would not be making that rewarded or recognised, so there are very many areas which would not be rewarded by a simple look at four publications. If everything was to be done on that, you would be rewarding one part of the system but not what the Research Councils would argue are the wider elements of what you should be trying to reward, particularly having, where appropriate, research having an impact on the economic development and quality of life of the people who pay for it.

  Professor Petersen: These are exactly the areas that are most difficult to deal with on a metrics based approach.

  Q719  Jeff Ennis: One of the pieces of evidence we have received is a paper from a gentleman called Tom Sastry entitled A Dangerous Economy: The wider implications of the proposed reforms to the UK's Research Councils' peer review system. One of the conclusions that Mr Sastry comes to is: "If the de facto roles of the Funding Councils and the Research Councils continue to converge, it will be increasingly difficult for the Research Councils, as the more expensive arm of dual support, to justify their role in funding research in universities. The Research Councils must either find a better means of reducing costs which does not undermine the distinctiveness of their role and it is not immediately apparent how they might do this; or focus upon doing things which the Funding Councils cannot do. The latter course implies that the Research Councils should focus upon strategic themes which reflect genuine political and public priorities, rather than replicate the purpose of the Funding Councils." Do you concur with that conclusion, Professor Diamond?

  Professor Diamond: I might find a few areas in the quote that you have just come out with that I might not quite agree with. If I recollect the overall piece that you are referring to, it does take as its starting point that the cost is £190 million. That is a holistic cost. We need to sit down and compare apples with apples, not apples with pears if we are going to talk about costs. I might argue that if we are going to take Professor Petersen's suggestion and take a lot of things out, the cost of the Research Councils' peer review is really not that great in terms of direct administrative cost.[11] The one thing that I would add to that is the absolute, overwhelming response that we received to our consultation with every higher education institution and every major stakeholder, that UK peer review is amongst the best—some people say the best—in the world and it is the right way to allocate competitive research funding. I have tried already to give some examples of why you would want to do that in basic research as well, right across the piece in other areas. I am happy to revisit some of those areas but fundamentally you will not have an institute of a particular type of sociology in one place. You will want to have people from across the piece and internationally looking at competitive funding and I believe basic and directed research need to be funded externally, independently and in a quality way by the Research Councils. I think we provide an enormous service to the research base in this country for a very small direct cost. Indeed, it is one that we work very hard to drive down the whole time. Secondly, I think you have to recognise what the Research Councils do in funding. One thing that they do is to fund a response mode, basic curiosity driven research and that is entirely right and proper. The second things that the Research Councils do is, where the market is failing through a really proper analysis of key areas, particularly some new areas, particularly areas where the Research Councils have to work together—

10   Note by witness: For time spent on writing grant proposals Back

11   Note by witness: i.e. less than £10 million Back

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