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December 18, 2008

Physics pool flourishes, but big is not enough

Once again the wait is over and the results are out. Xmas presents for some, gloom and worries for others. The much envied, much criticised, much altered quality ratchet for UK universities, the Research Assessment Exercise, is applied again.

Is it a huge destructive imposition on UK academia or is it a powerful management tool for quality improvement? Are UK universities high on global league tables because of it or in spite of it? Has it reached the point of diminishing return? Today is when theory and expectation meet reality.

Subject by subject, measures of esteem and cold appraisal of output against international competition are judged and laid bare. The first thing to be stressed is just what trust is placed in these judgments in Physics.

There are ongoing arguments about blue skies versus applied research, but at a muted level. There are arguments about too much emphasis on esteem, in other words, a bias against youth in contradiction to the history of physics.

The trust in the panels is to be admired. There is a realisation that national judgments, using a thought through process, are likely to be far superior to the huge set of institutional reviews that would otherwise be necessary to properly manage the universities.

Across Europe, there is envy of the system as a management tool mixed with fear of the complexity of the process. However, the complexity of the process contains two elements; the actual RAE exercise and the implicit or even explicit effect or use of the RAE in university management. The latter should not be counted as part of the RAE but is the process that it enables and that is sadly lacking in many European contexts. This planning autonomy, using the RAE as a tool for management, must be treasured in the UK.

So how is the RAE in Physics, particularly seen from a Scottish perspective that involves pooled teaching, research resource and general collaboration?

There are certainly major shifts from the 2001 RAE. The new staff profile, as opposed to the previous single number, provides more detailed information that will be clarified only when the research group information is released later. The lottery of being just below or just above a crucial 4/5/5* boundary is removed, which is a clear advance in the reform of the RAE.

The Scottish pooling in SUPA (Edinburgh, Glasgow, Heriot Watt, St Andrews, Strathclyde, and the University of the West of Scotland) is congratulating itself on three departments at 8th equal or above, while Heriot Watt has improved substantially. SUPA is currently awaiting news about a major £48 million bid (SUPA II) with the Scottish Funding Council. If successful, the funding will address many of the weaknesses remaining in the SUPA departments. As the alliance’s chief executive, I see the RAE results as part of an ongoing management of and search for total excellence in the physics part of the Scottish University System. The real competition is Stanford or MIT, as we need to remind ourselves.

In the argument that big is beautiful, set as a pre-condition in at least one previous RAE, the verdict this time is mixed. Oxford has stumbled and Imperial is not as dominant as I, for one, expected on the basis of the previous RAE and their considerable investments.

So, big is not enough; the advantages of scale are real but need to be seized. Large resources can lead to complacency as well as opportunity. This time, two small departments–Lancaster (FTE 26.4), at number one position, and St Andrews (FTE 32.2) at number two with the Cavendish and Nottingham–show that clear strategy and charismatic leaders and managers can achieve wonders.

A quick scan of other units of assessment reveals a remarkable variation in top rates of 4* staff. The top rate of 25 per cent in the Physics panel reveals a tight discipline in meeting the international agenda-setting criteria–perhaps rather self-defeating if the bar is set too high.

The next challenge is how the money will be allocated. Will it be by a formula based solely on the RAE measurement, or will it measure, as it should, whether past investment money has been well spent, and has this spend led to good outputs? Is a rate of improvement a relevant parameter?

If the funding is not allocated in an efficient and effective manner then the system will lose credibility.

There is an argument that the gains of concentration have been realised and that the management gains have been realised. I would argue that the major moves seen in the Physics tables argue, to the contrary, that complacency is always with us, that self image is always dangerous, and carrots and sticks will always be needed.

The other argument that the research councils could easily allocate the QR on peer-review criterion or on grant history does not recognise the necessity to manage the university structure to achieve quality. Such management needs information and resource. Floreat RAE!
Ian Halliday is Chief Executive of the Scottish Universities Physics Alliance and President of the European Science Foundation.

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