Published online 18 December 2008 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2008.1320

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Quality of UK research assessed

Research Assessment Exercise results will shape scientists' careers and universities' funding.

scientistThe Research Assessment Exercise will shape the careers of thousands of scientists.Alamy

The results of the United Kingdom's principle audit of research quality shows that more than half of the work submitted for review by the nation's universities is up to 'world class' standards.

The Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) will determine how more than £1.5 billion (US$2.3 billion) per year of government research funding will be distributed in the academic years beginning in 2009 and ending in 2014.

But universities will have to wait until 4 March 2009 to find out exactly how much funding they have won or lost. Until then, academics will be on tenterhooks waiting to see whether their research will be supported — or whether their jobs are in danger. Previous RAEs have triggered layoffs in universities whose results have caused a significant drop in funding.

Of the 52,400 academics from 159 higher education institutions that entered the RAE, 54% were found to be of an international standard, with 17% of these regarded as the best of the world's best, and 37% judged as internationally excellent (see graph). Only 2% of the work submitted was judged to fall short of the nationally recognized standards.

The RAE uses peer review to judge the quality of research in 67 subject areas, ranging from chemistry, physics and biological sciences to computer science and informatics. The reviewers include experts from the United Kingdom and abroad to ensure robust quality comparisons with the rest of the world.

William Schowalter, a chemical engineer from Princeton University, New Jersey, is one of the RAE's international judges, looking at engineering and materials science. "My input helped to validate judgements of what work should be considered of an international standard," he says. "I am convinced that where we set the benchmark is appropriate."

International standing

The previous RAE, carried out in 2001, found that 55% of work submitted was of an internationally excellent standard. Although no direct comparison can be made to this year's results, because different grading systems were used, "we can be confident that the results are consistent with other benchmarks indicating that the United Kingdom holds second place globally to the United States in significant subject fields", says David Eastwood, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which runs the exercise.

More than half of the UK's scientific research has been judged to be 'world class' (see larger graph).

The RAE also found that 49 universities had at least some world-leading research in all of their submissions, proving that the United Kingdom's best research is not just concentrated in a few key universities such as Cambridge or Imperial College London, adds Eastwood. Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society, the UK national academy of science, says, "The international impact and quality of science in our universities is one of the UK's most important economic advantages. We must all hope that the RAE outcome helps to ensure that funds are channelled so as to enable our researchers to build on our successes."

The Russell Group — an exclusive club of the United Kingdom's 20 leading research-intensive universities — has conducted its own analysis of the results, claiming that 18 of the top 20 performing institutions in the RAE are its members. Topping the chart is Oxford University with 713 full-time staff rated world class, followed by Cambridge University with 653, and University College London with 476.

Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, hailed the results but says that maintaining the quality of UK research is "a significant challenge" in the current economic climate. "Our leading universities are facing increasingly difficult challenges with income streams under threat, costs increasing and international competition escalating," she says.

Future metrics

This year's RAE is the sixth and final exercise of its kind to be run in the United Kingdom. It is also the most elaborate and expensive so far, costing £12 million to run. By comparison, the previous RAE cost £5.6 million.

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Due to the expense and administrative burden that the RAE has placed on academic institutions, the UK government decided in 2006 to replace it with the Research Excellence Framework, which will use metrics such as publication citations to judge the quality of research, rather than peer review. The Research Excellence Framework is expected to be implemented in 2013.

There have been mixed reactions to the transition. Schowalter, for example, says he has "serious concerns" about the Research Excellence Framework. "I and the other panel members felt that as elaborate and time consuming as the process was, the subjective peer review of research is important. It would be a dangerous activity to base judgements on an algorithm. I would be concerned about the quality of the results of the assessment." 

Nature will publish a full analysis of the RAE results in its 1 January 2009 edition.

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