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UK research funding proposal is 'irresponsible'

Academics rally to protest over assessment changes.

Efforts to judge science on its practical returns often raise hackles, and Britain's latest plan is no exception. Some of the nation's leading universities have condemned a scheme that would assess the economic and social benefits of research to help determine who wins a large fraction of university funding, and more than 12,000 academics have signed a petition opposing the plan. The public consultation on the proposals closed this week.

Concerns first arose in September, when the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) launched its proposals for the Research Excellence Framework (REF), the successor to the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) used to divide more than £1.5 billion (US$2.4 billion) per year in public funds between universities. Whereas the RAE did not use impact criteria, the REF, due to begin in 2013, will require researchers to submit case studies detailing examples of the societal and economic benefits of their research from the past 10–15 years. These examples would help to determine the fate of almost a third of the funding. The overall aim is to make explicit how much benefit the British taxpayer gets from funding research.

Ian Leslie, pro-vice chancellor for research at the University of Cambridge, considers the proposals "neither credible nor responsible". He says that the university recognizes that research institutions need to communicate the impact of the research they undertake. But HEFCE's proposals would turn "first-rate universities into second-rate companies", he says, adding that it is "irresponsible" to apportion so much funding on the basis of the impact of the research.

Similar requirements in the United States encourage some researchers to "oversell" the potential impact of their work, says William Schowalter, a chemical engineer from Princeton University, New Jersey, who was an international judge in the final RAE in 2008. This can skew funding towards fields such as nanotechnology that promise more immediate benefits.

Peter Knight, deputy rector for research at Imperial College London, says that he wants to delay the REF by a year to incorporate the findings of planned pilot trials. He recommends that just 15–20% of the audit be devoted to impact assessment, whereas the University and College Union, a trade union for academics, would like the impact component to be removed.

David Price, vice-provost for research at University College London, says that any assessment of impact should include benefit to the academic community, and not just the economy and society as currently proposed, to ensure that fields such as mathematics and social sciences are not disadvantaged.

HEFCE will publish a summary of the responses to the consultation, and its plans for the REF, in spring 2010.

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Gilbert, N. UK research funding proposal is 'irresponsible'. Nature 462, 834–835 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/462834b

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