Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 720 - 739)



  Q720  Jeff Ennis: Mr Sastry is suggesting that.

  Professor Diamond: I am agreeing with Mr Sastry that one needs to do that but I also would completely disagree that one does not need to do that basic research as well and to have a really tensioned, competitive approach to funding where there is a budget constraint and where international quality peer review is the basis for doing that. To do it in any other way would not be an appropriate mechanism, I would submit. We do need a national competition.

  Q721  Jeff Ennis: Professor Petersen, have you any thoughts on Mr Sastry's conclusions?

  Professor Petersen: In this respect I agree very much with Professor Diamond. On the whole, one has to be careful not to be hung up too much by these high costs of peer review because they are very notional.

  Q722  Chairman: You started off by saying there was not enough money going into research. Fiona Mactaggart said to you that you want to make sure that as much of the resource gets through to the researcher rather than to the administration of the process.

  Professor Petersen: We have to understand that these figures we are now talking about are notional. This is not money that is taken out of the Research Councils' budget. These are figures based on assessing how much time people spend on these things, so it is a bit different. The real problem is not this costing. The real problem is that there is not enough money in the system. There are a lot of good researchers who are not getting the funding that they need and therefore cannot do the job that they are hired to do. That is the real problem in the system, the insufficient amount of money that is in the Research Council system and also in the whole university system. We have to emphasise here that this is where we are at this moment in time in a worse situation than many other competitor countries.

  Q723  Chairman: Would you double it? Treble it? How much more do we need?

  Professor Petersen: In my particular area where roughly speaking four out of five applications are being rejected, I would suggest that there is a need for a doubling of it in order to have a system that will work properly and allow the people who are internationally competitive to work properly. This has something to do with the future sustainability of research. I do not think the UK's present position is sustainable in the present situation. I think we will be overtaken by other countries in the Far East and many of our European competitors, if you take into account their size, are doing quite a bit better.

  Professor Diamond: The administrative costs within the Research Councils are under £10 million per annum.

  Q724  Stephen Williams: When you are assessing a project that comes to you, what is uppermost in your mind? Where is the balance? Is it the quality of the proposal or the fact that you are going through an exercise of financial rationing as well on behalf of the government effectively?

  Professor Diamond: The only thing that the commissioning panels look at is the scientific quality of the research that comes in front of them.

  Q725  Stephen Williams: Presumably they know they cannot give the green light to every proposal that comes forward because you would run out of money?

  Professor Diamond: When you go into a research funding round on any commissioning panel, remember that the commissioning panels are made up primarily of academics but typically also with what we call a user representative from one of the stakeholders. They have a very clear view that the decisions that they are making will leave a number of proposals which would result in high, world class science being taken unfunded. All they can do is their very best. All members of commissioning panels work astonishingly hard. I personally was a member of a number of commissioning panels in my previous life. One works incredibly hard, with immense conscientiousness in order to ensure that the ranking of grants that you end up with is the very best that you can. Then, sadly, a line has to be drawn below which people are rejected. At the margins, that line is a very difficult line to draw. Discussions can often take hours around the end ranking because you know that somebody is going to really have some bad luck.

  Professor Petersen: Something that virtually all academics would agree on is that if success rates fall to very low levels the assessment also becomes endangered. If you have very low success rates, the precision of choosing one project over another is not as good as it could be. In addition to the fact that there will be a lot of very good research that is unfunded, there will also be a degree of rightful frustration in the academic community about why this project was chosen and the other one was not. I take the example of Switzerland because it is in many ways a very strong science country. Success rates for the Swiss National Research Foundation are something around 40%. They have quite different types of success rates from what we have and they have a very strong research system which is functioning and attracting some of the best people from the UK to go and work there.

  Q726  Chairman: You said earlier that there had been a substantial increase in research funding over a period of time. There are academics who wanted to canonise Lord Sainsbury because of his contribution to being seen to have made a great difference, being not only the Science Minister for a very long period of time but someone who took that science research budget very seriously. There must be a better feeling about this.

  Professor Petersen: That is recognised. I think it is important for this Committee to fully understand that there is a slight discrepancy—maybe more than a slight discrepancy—between the view from the top and the view at the coal face where the scientists are working and applying for grants. In my own area, the success rates for applications to the MRC have fallen in the last five years. What they see is increasing difficulties in getting the funding that they need to do the work that they are hired to do. Politicians at your level see that there has been an enormous increase in the amount of spend and that is good. All credit for that but one should not be too surprised that a lot of people who are working at the coal face are not quite so grateful because what they see is that it is getting more and more difficult.

  Q727  Jeff Ennis: Was the need to reform the RAE cost driven or due to its inherent weaknesses and flaws?

  Professor Petersen: I suspect that part of the fault lies in the academic community. Academics have been worrying about the RAE, all the work that is going on et cetera. That probably has gradually led to a feeling that it is too much. A lot of academics did that in the sort of environment where they thought maybe they could just get rid of it and go back to the good old days where you did not have all these audits et cetera. They did not realise that that is not exactly what is going to happen. Something else will come instead of it. Now a lot of people are regretting that they made all these complaints about the RAE because now they see that what is probably likely to be measured will be something that is much less attractive than the original model. I suspect that that is one element of it.

  Q728  Jeff Ennis: It is a bit like 10 years of a Labour Government.

  Professor Diamond: The Research Councils have been very clear for a period of time that the Research Assessment Exercise did not reward applied research, interdisciplinary research, research related to professional practice and research which was really having an economic impact or an impact on the quality of life of the people of this country. These are rewards that we absolutely have to develop into the higher education culture. It has to be seen by someone at a junior level that they can invest time in doing those sorts of things and that that is going to be rewarded over time in their promotability within the universities. That simply was not being done by the Research Assessment Exercise and all those are reasons, I would submit, for a review and a refreshment of the way in which we identify quality in allocating research funding across the whole dual support system.

  Q729  Mr Chaytor: Do you think that the focus on the metrics peer review debate has distracted attention from some of the more fundamental issues about the question of concentration of research and the link between teaching and learning or the link between research and business as against pure research? Do you think what we are missing is a more fundamental review of the bigger issues in the future of British research to make British university research sustainable and we have been focusing on the micro issues too much and not enough on the macro issues?

  Professor Diamond: When you say "we", do you mean your Committee?

  Q730  Mr Chaytor: In the royal "we" sense, I am speaking for the nation.

  Professor Diamond: Speaking for the Research Councils, we would not feel that the world had just taken over by a review of the RAE and peer review. We have taken those as extremely important parts of the research base and it was right and proper to review both of them. At the same time, we absolutely have to take forward a really proper step change in the way that we engage with what, in Research Council speak, is called knowledge transfer. That is the whole way in which the research base impacts on business, on government, not only in the linear way that people think of it where a light comes on in a scientist's head and five years later there is a new product on the shelf of a supermarket or whatever; but in a whole range of ways, some of which are interactive, some of which involve people transfer, some of which have a long time to have an impact. We really have to properly measure and engage in a culture which enables that to happen. That has been going on as a really major focus for the Research Councils working with the higher education sector very much over the last couple of years or so. It is an area that the UK was rather better at than sometimes it believed. It has been very easy to say, "We are not very good at this" when you can string out very many examples of where we have been good at it, but we also acknowledge it is an area where we have to get better, particularly in some of the newer areas of the economy. That has been a really major focus over the last little while for the Research Councils. We as a nation have been really focusing on that area and not simply focusing on the areas that you describe. Also, there has been a recognition that we have an academic community which, in some areas, is greying very rapidly, where there has been a real need to have some strategic inputs into a higher education base in order over the future that we maintain the health of disciplines. That was a real focus of the allocations to Research Councils in 2004 under that spending review. It is something that we have been taking forward very much over the last few years. Annually, it is my task on the Research Based Funders' Forum to bring to that an annual report on the health of disciplines and what is being done. I can report to you that an enormous amount of work has been going on jointly between the Funding Councils and the Research Councils to ensure that we do have impact on a number of strategic areas that we see as being in need of tender loving care; or we will see a decline in the research base in this country. I do not think we have been focusing totally on those areas. Many other things have been going on.

  Q731  Mr Chaytor: Professor Petersen, in the Royal Society's submission to the Committee it talks both about the absolute need for international competitiveness in research but also the intrinsic value of maintaining the interdependency between teaching and research. Surely at the end of the day government and the Funding Councils are going to have to decide whether they want to concentrate research in those institutions that are internationally competitive or whether they want to disseminate it across all of our universities and maintain the link between teaching and learning. Do you not envisage a time in the very near future when some universities will simply have to become teaching only universities in order to divert sufficient funds to the leading research intensive universities to maintain international competitiveness?

  Professor Petersen: We obviously have to separate a little bit the university world because the university is a very wide spectrum of institutions. There are already now a lot of universities that are essentially teaching universities. Most of the research that is funded by Research Councils is going on in the Russell Group universities. There is no doubt about that. This is in the public domain. Since we are talking about research funding, I guess we can restrict the discussion to the Russell Group universities because there is an enormous amount of research. I am conscious of the fact that there are centres of excellence elsewhere but the bulk of the research is carried out in the Russell Group universities. Here there are different views. There are some very strong universities in the golden triangle who have the view that all the research funding should go to them. They maintain the argument that only in this way can the UK have real world class universities. That is not the Royal Society's position. The Royal Society has always been looking at the individual scientists. We have pointed out many times that even though there is a certain concentration of research funding in the golden triangle, there are top rated departments in many other universities and we would miss out greatly if we said no, we just want to have three universities, Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial, and we do not want to do it in any other way. Again, if I may use the example of Switzerland which is a small country, by all standards they always come out on top. It is not the case in Switzerland that there is one elite institution. The ETH is a great institution but the new EPFL in Lausanne is by many standards as good. Zurich University is a great university but so is Bern and Geneva. When you look internationally, there is no particular intellectual argument that says that we can only sustain our excellence if we just choose two universities. We would lose out enormously. They are top rated departments in many different places. I speak as a person who for many years was head of physiology in Liverpool which was the top rated department in this country, higher rated than Oxford and Cambridge in exercise after exercise. It is a very dangerous argument sometimes put out by people who have a self-interest in these matters that all research funding needs to be concentrated in certain universities. It is one of the good things about the way the Research Assessment Exercise has been done. It has not taken a view on whether a university is good or not. Instead it is saying, "Let us show the research results from various places and we will fund those areas that are high quality." The Royal Society position is that we fund excellence wherever it is to be found.

  Q732  Chairman: You did give evidence to the last higher education inquiry. You will remember the evidence of Sir Richard Sykes on this point when he wanted a handful of research rich universities, all of which would be in London and the south east.

  Professor Diamond: If we look at 2005-06, 50% of Research Council funding goes to 10 universities. The other side of the coin is that the Research Councils fund in 155 higher education institutions. We fund competitively there. That means there are people doing incredible research right across the base and different places are focusing on different things. For example, the example often given in this case is Dundee Abertay which has world leading work on computer games and areas around that. We must fund great research wherever we find it. We must allow universities and higher education institutions to have the flexibility to focus on particular areas, often respecting particular local skills and markets. For example, I know that the University of Bournemouth has a real focus on computer graphics which reflects a cluster of industry around there. Whether that cluster has come because Bournemouth University is good at it or Bournemouth University is good at it because that cluster exists I do not know but we must have a position where we fund great research wherever we find it. We have already had a big discussion thus far about the difficulties of getting funding and I can assure you therefore that we do have that diversity of institution. Certainly while there are some huge universities across the research board, there is absolute excellence to be found in every institution.

  Q733  Fiona Mactaggart: Professor Diamond, earlier you were critical of Stephen's anecdotes. I am going to tell you another anecdote.

  Professor Diamond: I was not critical.

  Q734  Fiona Mactaggart: When I was in higher education, as someone who was very focused on teaching, I felt that as the Research Assessment Exercise was coming down the road people like me were locked away in cupboards if we could or forced to research if we could not, while people in the management of the institution concentrated on the real business of the institution which was research. Is that an uncommon experience or do you think it has been more widely felt?

  Professor Diamond: The reason I am being careful in what I say is that we are speaking anecdotally. I cannot speak for every university. I have worked in universities and I am now a leader of a Research Council. It is very clear to me that students demand and deserve the highest quality teaching. That should be done by the people who are best at doing it and there is an enormous amount of excitement and energy given to students by the cross over between research and teaching. Personally, I believe passionately that no one should put the word "professor" in front of their name unless they are prepared to profess their subject right across the board. Here you can also find anecdotal evidence in the United States that, as we move into a culture where students are paying fees for university, they will expect to see the very best and biggest names teaching in institutions but only if that teaching is really excellent. I believe very strongly that we have to have that cross over but that also we need to reward teaching excellence in universities. I believe there is a real need to have posts of professors of teaching excellence, where their work has not simply impacted on their own students but on the teaching of their subject more generally. It is incredibly important that universities, in looking at promotion for their staff, have lines of promotability for individual staff which reflect the diversity of a university's mission. The university's mission will always be a major mission of teaching and that means that you have to have absolute excellence and reward those who do it in universities, as well as research, as well as the other areas such as knowledge transfer. That is why you absolutely need to have that broader culture. Do I see that happening in universities? I have to be absolutely honest with you. Anecdotally again, I have seen a sea change over the last few years in many universities when I have had the privilege in this job to go and talk to Vice Chancellors right across the piece who have told me that they are trying very hard to change the culture in their institution to ensure that those sorts of things are rewarded.

  Professor Petersen: That is a very important area. One has some difficulties in really assessing the situation. A lot of the evidence that is around is anecdotal. You will hear many people say that the increasing emphasis on research assessment has been to the detriment of teaching. This is something that is commonly stated. I am not quite sure that it is right. My own personal feeling is that the increasing workload on academics which means that they work these many, many hours we have already alluded to, probably in the research led universities means that a lot of the extra time people are putting in has been put in on the research side. Maybe that means that a lot of people see that looming larger but I do not think that has meant that people are spending less time on their teaching or preparing their teaching. In many universities, including my own, the pressure that is generated on the academic world has meant that people have thought very carefully about how to do their teaching in the best and most efficient way. There is a great deal of emphasis on high quality teaching. The general view that the Royal Society has is that teaching is extremely important. We are talking about educating the next generation of scientists. We believe that teaching in a research led environment is, in a general sense, a good thing. When I think back to my own time as an undergraduate, I was enormously inspired by being taught by people who did research and who gave me that enthusiasm for it. I would like to think that is something that is also happening now. Serious people do want to teach very well and to put a lot of emphasis on the next generation as extremely important. The quality of teaching is really important. In my own field, one of the main results of our research ultimately is to produce better textbooks. That is one particular goal to think about. We want the knowledge of the people who are going to take over after us to be better than our knowledge. The two things should and must go hand in hand. We have to make sure that happens.

  Professor Diamond: The writing of a textbook would not be something that would be rewarded entirely by a Research Assessment Exercise unless you tried to say that that was a good thing and reward it properly. That is one of the areas we believe you need to do more in.

  Q735  Fiona Mactaggart: That is partly what I am interested in. What is research inspired teaching? Are people out there really clear about what it is? It is a push to get more research inspired teaching. Is there a risk that we will not have research inspired teaching but we will have a kind of apartheid of teachers and researchers who occasionally talk to each other?

  Professor Petersen: We must avoid that at all costs. I absolutely agree. It has been a traditional strength of this country and it could be and should be a continuing strength that we keep those two things together. It is a delicate balancing act because there are such enormous pressures on time but it is a really important goal. It is something, I agree, that has not been assessed generally speaking in the best possible way. It is absolutely not clear to me at all how a metrics driven approach will help in any way with regard to that. We could think about ways in which one could build it into the system and that has nothing to do with the method, whether it is a peer review system or a metrics driven system. It would be more easily brought into a peer review system, quite frankly.

  Q736  Chairman: Do they stress the relationship between research and teaching in the Swiss example you have referred to?

  Professor Petersen: I do not think it is fundamentally different in the good research led universities that I personally would know. In all the conversations I have with good scientists at scientific conferences, people are not talking dismissively about teaching. This is a misconception that has been raised by some people, that people who are doing research are not interested in teaching and so on. It has not been my experience. When I talk to colleagues, mostly at scientific conferences internationally, people are enthusiastic about their teaching. They fully understand its great importance and they want to do their very best.

  Q737  Fiona Mactaggart: You said that it has not been assessed. In earlier exchanges one of the things that we have recognised is that things that are not assessed or funded do not get properly looked after. There has been some kind of push to directly fund research informed learning. Has that changed anything or has it just papered over it all?

  Professor Diamond: I am the wrong person to ask that question. I would hope that it had.

  Q738  Fiona Mactaggart: Are you the right person to ask to describe what research informed learning looks like?

  Professor Diamond: It is something that I have given lectures about so I ought to be able to answer to some extent. It is not a simple answer that I would give you in one sentence. You need to be reflecting the very best research practice, the very best recent research knowledge. Neither of those needs to be done by a great researcher but in the whole learning experience being able to undertake one's project in a laboratory with very good people is an extremely positive experience. The whole link between great research and how your teaching develops over time has to be something that is brought together in a positive way. The one thing I would not say is that you always need great researchers to do research led teaching. That is really important. You can see examples of brilliant teachers who are doing research led teaching in a brilliant way. What you do need is a really holistic view of the learning experience and the way in which students are at university, not only if you like to learn a set of vocational skills but to broaden their understanding of the way in which knowledge is generated and develops so that when they go out into the wider world, into whatever careers they subsequently take on, they understand that much broader knowledge. If we can engender that, then we have engaged in research based teaching.

  Professor Petersen: In my own field which is laboratory based science, one example of it would be that students can undertake projects working with research equipment in a research environment where other people are doing real, cutting edge research. By doing that and seeing the example of other people, by interacting with some of the people who do experiments, you will get a direct feeling and understanding of how the scientific process works. This is something that will preferentially occur in an environment where there is a substantial amount of research funding, where there are a lot of researchers around. That would be one example of research informed learning.

  Q739  Stephen Williams: Can I return briefly to the dismal science of metrics? The Department says that it is going to be a single, over-arching framework within which a differentiated approach is possible for groups of disciplines. I would take that to mean that arts and humanities will continue to have peer review and stem subjects and everyone else will get metrics, unfortunately from your perspective. Will that make it harder for departments to cooperate on different areas of research? For instance, archaeology is clearly a mix of history and perhaps physics as well.

  Professor Petersen: There will be some problems in those areas and that has been a concern of the Royal Society. Mathematics are a clear example, mostly labelled together with science. It cannot be assessed in the same way. The future, for example, of biology is very much based on quantitative approaches and there will be a need for mathematicians to work very closely with biologists. Of course, a lot will depend on the details which we still do not understand but there certainly are dangers when different subjects that have to work closely together are assessed in what appears to be, under the current proposals, fundamentally different ways. It will cause considerable problems and we are very worried about that.

  Professor Diamond: I take the point you have made that the assessment or the reward mechanism will influence behaviour but if we want research to take place across the entire piece we simply have to engender a culture whereby people feel relaxed, able and rewarded to spend the time that it takes to undertake that research. It is not absolutely clear to me, because I do not know what the details of these systems will look like, how having a slightly different system in different areas will impact on that. That is something we will have to look at when people have come out with it and certainly I hope that they do take that into account. At the end of the day we have to have opportunities for people to work across boundaries in some of the key areas that Research Councils UK are saying are important for directed research. They are cutting across three or four Research Councils. There has been a magnificent programme the Research Councils have funded in recent years on the rural environment and land use. That has involved, in a really exciting way, biologists working with environmental scientists, working with social scientists, really to impact on policy and activities in the rural areas of this country and indeed beyond. We simply have to have an environment for science—by "science" I mean research—across the entire base in this country which enables people to work together. We need to be aware that the metrics should not impact on what individual scientists are doing. That is the whole thrust of Research Councils UK's input in this area.

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