Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Letters

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Letters

Article excerpt

A REF change that would lose telling details

Nobody likes bureaucracy, but detail can matter. In the case of the research excellence framework, the process of choosing and submitting individual units of research for assessment is complex and time-consuming. The word "burden" is used a lot by university staff, and many academics will look at the "simpler, lighter touch system" envisaged by REF reviewer Lord Stern with high hopes.

The REF is nevertheless an example where cutting corners in pursuit of a simpler life could lead us down a dark alley. This is not to say that the assessment is perfect in its current form: the University Alliance made that clear in our response to the Stern Review.

Rather, the proposal currently being presented by the Russell Group and others to assess institutional research performance in its totality, instead of individual units, would weaken the UK's science and research base.

Unit-level assessment is important because it generates granular data for the purposes of allocating funding. That in turn ensures that research excellence is identified wherever it exists, even at smaller institutions that have historically received less funding or none.

The granularity of the data also promotes dynamism in the sector, shining light on emerging pockets of excellence.

By contrast, assessing institutional performance in its totality would overlook excellence wherever it is to be found, and funding would then be further concentrated among a handful of universities.

Allocating research funding on the basis of scale or past funding volume would not improve the overall performance of the research base. It would bring only diminishing returns while undermining the richness and diversity of UK science and research. By preserving the granularity of the REF through assessment of individual units, that outcome can be avoided.

Alistair Fitt

Vice-chancellor, Oxford Brookes University, and research lead, University Alliance

Homer's DNA

Ian Goldin, quoted in the article "Multidisciplinary research 'career suicide' for junior academics" (News, 12 May), seems to view top journals as highly specialised. I know that Science and Nature don't generally include Classics, but I think they are fairly interdisciplinary.

Perhaps he should read them more closely. The advances in archaeology and the tracking of peoples using mutation rates may cast a wee bit of light on Classics. I think that his pessimism for junior academics pursuing interdisciplinary research is unwarranted. And while I'm glad he feels that the study of the humanities involves a skill set of enquiry based on evidence, a more multidisciplinary view would reveal that the same is true of science.

Richard C. Hartley

Professor of chemical biology

University of Glasgow

Open for debate

I wish to address five misconceptions in Ron Iphofen's feature "Better safe than sorry" (28 April):

1. Human rights concerns hobble anti-terrorist surveillance

There is no evidence that recent terrorist attacks could have been prevented were it not for "privacy-related 'obstacles'". Intelligence and security agencies have considerable surveillance capabilities, but the challenge lies in selecting on whom to target their resources and in communicating across agencies and borders.

2. Technology will fix the problem for us

Technologies that could spot individuals wearing only one glove would likely drown security agencies with a huge number of false positives. …

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