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December 19, 2008

Final chapter in turbulent year for physics

Last February, the Council of the Royal Astronomical Society concluded that they had "no-confidence" in the new Science and Technology Research Council, which a few months earlier had taken on the responsibility of funding UK astronomy.

"The STFC’s Delivery Plan pays lip-service to the need to foster the UK academic community, who play the key role in delivery of all of STFC’s outputs–first class science, facility design and usage, and knowledge exchange, but has shown no evidence in its public statements or actions that it recognises this duty," announced the RAS, a normally cautious and diplomatic learned society. "The 25-per-cent decline in grants across the CSR period, with no sign of any intention or even desire to level this out in later years, has filled the community with deep pessimism and anger."

In a broad-ranging review of the current status of UK Physics, published in August, the Wakeham Panel reported the discipline to be in generally good health. However, as the review was set up in response to concerns such as those arising from the RAS Council, it was significant that the panel found that many of the strongest areas of UK physics were highly dependent on STFC support.

Furthermore, given concerns over a long-standing fall in physics A-level entries, it was important that the research areas in STFC’s remit, such as astronomy, space science and particle physics, are often also those most attractive to students–of both genders.

Adding to this turbulent scene, we now have another major input, with the results of the RAE 2008 RAE. Profiling all university physics departments on the percentage of staff judged to be of national or international repute, the overall picture confirms that university research is indeed competing very well at the (critical) global level. Or, at least, was recently performing well, given that the RAE is necessarily backward looking (over the period from 2002 to 2007).

So, how important is this final RAE for university physics?

In addition to providing another assessment of the discipline in a globally competitive research context, departmental profiles will, for several years ahead, determine the level of QR funding from HEFCE. And this second funding stream is more important than ever, in my view, given the erratic performance of the STFC and the enthusiasm of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council for top-down thematic programmes.

Although representing a smaller fraction of university research income than it did before Fixed Economic Costing (fEC) was introduced, pre-FEC, QR funding is likely to form around 30 per cent of research ‘overhead’ income for a typical research-active department such as my own. It provides ‘seed corn’ for funding of young researchers not yet on the research council radar, and a useful counter to a reduction of external support for ‘blue skies’ research in response to government pressures for wealth-creation.

Translating a departmental research profile into the HEFCE grant will, of course, depend on the still-to-be announced funding formula. If HEFCE follows earlier practice, this will be skewed to disproportionately favour 3* and 4* researchers. If used that way, the QR funding will indeed be a significant cushion against STFC cuts, as it will benefit particularly those same strong departments that, paradoxically, are being hardest hit by the 25 per cent reduction in STFC grants.

However, recalling the damage done to the broader university physics community by previous RAEs, I would caution against straying too far from a linear funding formula, whereby a 4* researcher attracts 4 times the funding of a 1* researcher. Broadly spread QR funding could be crucial in avoiding more physics department closures, and an expansion of the regional ‘research deserts’ identified by the Institute of Physics.

Prestige is also at stake in the RAE results, in addition to funding. In that respect, the current exercise appears badly flawed.

To give a true picture of a department’s research strength, it is clearly important to know whether all eligible staff were submitted for assessment, or whether substantial numbers were ‘hidden away’. That normalisation has been denied in the 2008 RAE by HEFCE deciding not to reveal non-submission data. More sinister is the rumour that HEFCE’s decision was made under threat of legal action by a number of universities who chose the more ‘selective’ approach.

In response, we are likely to see conflicting ‘league tables’, with the most meaningful, of research ‘intensity’, using previous staff numbers to normalise the ‘quality’ tablebased only on submitted researchers.

So, should we welcome or regret the passing of the RAE?

I believe the RAE brought a new rigour to university research, and substantially raised the overall standards. However, as noted above, the harsher light led to some weak (and not so weak) departments being closed or merged. In physics, the number of university departments fell from 79 to 51 over the period of the 1991, 1996 and 2001 RAEs, with the undoubted loss of some important potential. On the other hand, the fall in student numbers probably made some shrinkage inevitable.

The Wakeham Report’s criticism that UK physics departments are sometimes too narrowly focussed has some validity, and has roots partly in the RAE. Another undesirable consequence of the non-linear funding of QR has been its influence on university appointments, with ambitious VCs competing–and often over-paying-for star performers in the manner of chairmen of Premiership football clubs.

Looking ahead, it seems that some metrics-based quality assessment will be used to guide the HEFCE component of dual research funding. No doubt there will be complaints that the particular metric is unfair to some. However, all universities must surely prefer to keep an imperfect system rather than to lose the dual-funding lifeline that must be in some danger now that both HEFCE and the research councils find themselves in the same part of Whitehall.
Ken Pounds is Emeritus Professor of Physics at the University of Leicester and former Chief Executive of the old Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council.

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