2008 It's all right for some.
Professor Gerry McKenna
The current debate on the use of citations for determining future research funding following the Research Excellence Framework (REF) is sad to witness. It raises simultaneously all that is good and, regrettably, deficient with academic thinking and analysis. Perhaps it was ever thus. What is being proposed is what all governments since the mid-1980s have promoted, namely that research funding should be concentrated in a few elite universities. This may make sense to some who want to pull up the drawbridge behind them and ossify the system. It is a policy that has been promoted by some vice-chancellors, mostly behind closed doors, in the often mistaken belief that their institution would benefit in the short term.
Every successive research assessment exercise since the first crude attempt in 1986 has been intended to concentrate research within a few institutions. It has not done so to the extent that its planners envisaged. Because of the academic honesty of RAE panel members, there have been examples of research excellence in the most unlikely places. This is particularly true of emerging disciplines, where some of the newer universities have excelled. Is this not good for the country, or should we go back to the range of disciplines that existed in the 1950s?
It is therefore obvious to some that the current proposals for the REF are inherently, and deliberately, discriminatory against new universities. Most importantly, they are detrimental to the interests of younger staff and women, who have been appointed in increasing numbers in the past 15 years. Has the policy been equality-impact assessed? I fear not. Meantime, academics will go on debating the second order issue of how best to measure citations rather than the efficacy of their use. Nothing changes.
Gerry McKenna, Portrush, Northern Ireland.
Copy of letter published in the The Higher (THES), January 2008.