The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) is pleased to respond to the UK Funding Council's consultation on RAE 2008: panel configuration and recruitment. The General Secretary, Professor Andrew Miller, and the Research Officer, Dr Marc Rands have compiled this response, with the assistance of a number of Fellows with expertise on these issues.
The two-tiered structure of the panels has been introduced in order to ensure a consistent approach, and so that ‘…the panels are working to common, objectively defined quality standards…’. It will be essential, however, that this goes beyond the uniform definitions developed for the quality profiles, and that the latter are drawn up sufficiently tightly to avoid different interpretation of the definitions. The definitions of ‘international’ and ‘national’ excellence in the 2001 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) had considerable similarities between different Units of Assessment (UoAs), but the definitions were sufficiently vague to allow scope for different interpretations to emerge between UoAs. In order to ensure a consistent approach, the main panels will need to play a substantive role in the evaluation of the submissions and do much more than formally ratifying the work of the sub-panels.
The new two-tiered structure should also seek to facilitate the assessment of interdisciplinary research within panels, but attention needs to be given to research that spans more than one panel. To this end, consideration should be given to ensuring cross-referencing of submissions to appropriate UoAs within and between panels.
In addition, there are a number of Scottish initiatives that seek to develop cross-institutional alliances, and the RAE 2008 processes will need to be able to embrace such submissions, to allow the benefits and synergies of such approaches to continue.
The specific areas of the consultation paper are now addressed below:
Units of Assessment
Since the first RAE when different branches of biology had their individual submissions, there has been successive amalgamations. Preclinical sciences, a specialised sub-group of biological sciences, is treated as a separate submission from biological sciences while the latter has to take in ecology, biochemistry, microbiology, plant sciences, zoology and others. This is in contrast to the separation into specialities of some of the Medical Subjects. It would be much more appropriate if there was some subdivision of biological sciences into the component disciplines so that an assessment of volume and quality in the various areas of biology can be assessed.
It is proposed that there will be no formal panels or sub-panels beneath the level of the Unit of Assessment. This means that there will be no Scottish law sub panel to the main Law Panel, equivalent to those that operated effectively in 1996 and in 2001. While the system of sub-panels may not have operated well for other disciplines in the 2001 RAE, law is genuinely different in its territoriality. Scottish law has a different history, is based on different principles, and adopts a different philosophy to English law. There is a fear that without a Scottish law sub panel, research into Scots law may be skewed by the RAE process, with individual researchers feeling constrained to focus their work on areas that will have understanding and application across legal systems in general rather than on areas of peculiarly Scottish import.
The possible structure of panels and sub-panels proposed certainly has some appeal, and it is clear that any allocation of sub-panels to panels will raise boundary issues. However:
Computer science: Panel F
It is proposed to place computer science in Panel F with mathematical sciences. However, maths and computer science are cognate only in that they are the foundation for many other areas of science, and have interaction with many other disciplines, rather than being closer to each other in 'content'. There could, therefore be consideration of a separate informatics panel for computer science. The justification for this would be that the topic is inherently interdisciplinary and has links to life sciences, maths, physics, electrical engineering, cognitive science, information science, psychology, and e-science. It also has a large number of submissions, with widespread representation in universities and is important to UK industry. If not, this will be a area where there is likely to be variation in methods and criteria within the UoAs of the main panel, and therefore the relationship between the panel and sub-panels will need to be carefully worked out.
Earth Sciences: Panels E/H
Earth Sciences is placed in panel E while environmental sciences and geography have been put in panel H. While there are strong arguments for retaining the important ‘Main Panel’ links between Earth Sciences, Physics and Chemistry in panel E, it will be important to maintain close and formal links for the assessment of earth sciences via inter-panel consultation with panel H. The grouping of environmental science with geography, however, is welcome.
Town and Country Planning: Panels H/K
It is proposed combining town and country planning with geography, environmental sciences and built environment in panel H. In many submissions in this UoA, however, there will be a major applied social studies dimension. It may, therefore, be more appropriate to group town and country planning with social science in panel K.
Celtic Studies: Panels L/M
The majority of research in celtic studies is in the language and literature, based around one historical language group and its cultures, rather than being cross-cultural studies. It may therefore be better suited to the languages panel M than panel L that concentrates on area studies.
The following bodies should be included on the list of nominating bodies:
In responding to this consultation the Society would like to draw attention to the following Royal Society of Edinburgh responses which are of relevance to this subject: Research and Knowledge Transfer in Scotland (September 2002); Review of Research Assessment (December 2002); Lambert Review of Business-University Collaboration (April 2003); The Future of Higher Education (May 2003); Review of Research Assessment (October 2003) and Science and innovation: working towards a ten-year investment framework (April 2004).
Further information is available from the Research Officer, Dr Marc Rands