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Scientific shift

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A DISCUSSION document published by the Government last week heralds a shift in the way scientific research is funded in Britain and, importantly for universities, how the quality of research is assessed. Proposals include reorganisation of some of the research councils and an end to the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), which, although only undertaken periodically, has dominated life in research departments for the best part of 20 years.

The proposals are set out in a document entitled ‘Science and innovation investment framework 2004-2014: next steps’,* which was published alongside this year’s Budget and which builds on a strategy document published in 2004. Like many Government documents on this subject in recent years, it is (quite rightly) concerned with improving Britain’s record in innovation and ensuring that the country benefits from its long tradition of excellence in science by exploiting the results commercially. The idea that Britain is not as good at this as it should be is by no means new, but a solution to the problem has eluded governments for more than half a century. The present Government has at least recognised that, to benefit from science, there is a need to invest in it in the first place and, over the past 10 years has sought to reverse a decline in funding which, between 1981 and 2000, saw the proportion of the UK’s gross domestic product (GDP) being spent on research and development falling from 2·38 to 1·83 per cent (see VR, September 7, 2002, vol 151, p 277). Investment is still not as high as it should be, but the Government’s current ambition is that public and private investment in R&D should reach 2·5 per cent of GDP by 2014.

Just as important as how much is spent is how funds are distributed, which is why, as far as universities are concerned, the RAE is so important. Under Britain’s ‘dual support system’, funding for university research is made up of two distinct, but related, elements: funding from the research councils, awarded on the basis of competitive bids from researchers; and funding from the higher education funding councils in the form of block grants to institutions. The amount awarded by the higher education funding councils is related to research ‘quality’ as assessed by the RAE. The first such exercise was undertaken in 1989; it has since been repeated in various shapes and forms in 1992, 1996 and 2001, and the next is planned for 2008. Britain’s six veterinary schools have always performed well in the RAE, but other university departments have been less fortunate. The outcome can make the difference between life and death for university departments, and some have closed as a result of not performing well.

Like its predecessors, the 2008 RAE is to be based on an elaborate system of peer-review. The criteria to be applied were published in January and university departments are currently devoting considerable energy to trying to ensure the best outcome. With so much at stake, who can blame them? However, the latest discussion document makes clear that the 2008 exercise will be the last. The Government remains committed to the dual support system. However, rather than relying on the RAE, research quality will be assessed on a ‘metrics-based’ system, the nature of which has still to be clarified. The aim will be ‘to reduce the burden of peer-review, wherever possible, consistent with the overall aim of assessing excellence’.

As well as imposing an administrative burden, the RAE creates considerable uncertainty, and involves much second-guessing about how the criteria will be applied, and there will be few in the universities who will mourn its passing. However, it will be important that the new system represents a genuine improvement, and to be sure of the details before celebrating.

The changes proposed in relation to the research councils mainly concern funding in the physical sciences; the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, which is the most relevant in terms of animal disease research, seems unlikely to be affected. Regarding medical research, where funding is split between the Medical Research Council and the Department of Health, the Government will be ‘ring-fencing’ the total funding for R&D, creating ‘a single, jointly held health research fund’, which will be used to meet agreed strategic priorities.

Emphasising the importance of innovation to national prosperity, the document clearly identifies the need to improve the supply of skilled scientists and, with this in mind, outlines a number of measures aimed at strengthening science in schools. A shortage of highly qualified applicants has not, as yet, been a problem for the veterinary schools. However, severe difficulties are being experienced in other areas of science, which remains profoundly worrying.

Although not quite on the same scale of the overhaul outlined in the Government’s discussion document, The Veterinary Record has also undergone a scientific shift, with the launch this week of a new system for the submission and handling of manuscripts. Anyone submitting papers and short communications for peer-review by this journal is now encouraged to do so online (see p 423). It is hoped that the new system will benefit authors and reviewers, by allowing the peer-review of manuscripts to be administered more efficiently.

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