Research Performance Evaluation: The Experience of an Independent Medical Research Institute

By Schapper, Catherine C.; Dwyer, Terence et al. | Australian Health Review, May 2012 | Go to article overview

Research Performance Evaluation: The Experience of an Independent Medical Research Institute


Schapper, Catherine C., Dwyer, Terence, Tregear, Geoffrey W., Aitken, MaryAnne, Clay, Moira A., Australian Health Review


Introduction

Interest in defining the health, social and economic impacts of investment in health research has intensified in recent years.1 Much of this activity has focussed on evaluating the outcomes of research funding from the public sector. The Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) and now the Research Excellence Framework (REF) were established to assess the quality of research carried out in British universities.2 In Australia, the Federal government implemented the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) exercise in 2009,3 a national initiative to evaluate university research output. Other evaluation efforts include assessing the research outcomes of funding from bodies such as medical charities4 and an assessment of research and development centres funded by a regional National Health Service office in the UK.5 In these situations, the body funding the research, and thus seeking to assess its impact, is a separate entity to the organisation conducting the research. Independent research institutes, many of which are funded by philanthropic donors, have a similar need for accountability in investment decisions and also require an evaluation of research performance but the existing methods - generally developed for universities by external funding bodies - are not appropriate.

Why evaluate research performance?

The Murdoch Childrens Research Institute focusses on child health research and is one of the top five recipients of government funding among medical research institutes in Australia. 6 Affiliated with The Royal Children's Hospital in Melbourne and the Department of Paediatrics at The University of Melbourne, the Institute has around 1000 researchers and 60 research groups working in a broad range of laboratory, clinical and public health research. The Institute is an independent, not-for-profit organisation and its research is funded by a combination of government, peer-reviewed grant funding and private fundraising through philanthropic activities.

The Institute's goal to be an internationally competitive child health research institute prompted the reorganisation, in 2005, of its research groups into six research themes. In order to drive strategic planning and development, and to link internal allocation of funds (largely from donors) to research performance, the development of a transparent research evaluation method to assess the Institute's research performance and distribute internal funding was required. Rather than relying on an evaluation process performed by an external funding body, the Institute developed and implemented an evaluation method whereby its research output was assessed internally in order to drive its own research agenda and encourage research excellence.

The evaluation of research is the subject of much debate. Two main methodological approaches have been identified: the 'topdown' approach using econometric calculation, such as that recently employed by Access Economics to assess economic gain from Australian research funding investment, and the 'bottom-up' approach or 'payback model' developed by Buxton Hanney and colleagues over the past 20 years.1 A range of metrics has also been developed to evaluate scientific research, but their use is the subject of some debate. It is generally argued that bibliometric evaluation tools, such as journal impact factors, should be used in conjunction with other evaluation measures, such as qualitative peer review7 or 'research paybacks', where the returns to society of research are considered.8-10 Journal impact factors calculated by Thomson Reuters ISI Web of Knowledge are used frequently to evaluate research, but the use of this bibliometric measure alone is only useful in certain circumstances.11,12 It has been suggested that universities in the UK preferentially selected laboratory-based research papers for inclusion in departmental evaluations in the RAE because they are generally published in journals with higher impact factors than clinical research papers. …

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