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RAE Briefing Paper - May 1999

Interdisciplinary Research and the Research Assessment Exercise

The Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) is conducted by the four UK Higher Education Funding Bodies every four to five years. The primary purpose of the exercise is to produce ratings of research quality which are used by the funding bodies in determining the main grant for research to the institutions they fund.

The RAE is a measurement tool and should carry out the function without distorting what it is measuring. The RAE should not encourage or discourage any particular type of activity or behaviour other than providing a general stimulus to the improvement of research quality overall. The funding bodies take care, therefore, to review the impact of each RAE and to seek continuous improvement of the process.

In preparation for the 2001 RAE the funding bodies commissioned a major study of the assessment of interdisciplinary research by the 1996 exercise. The report of that study was published in April 1999 as "Interdisciplinary Research and the Research Assessment Exercise" (RAE 1/99). The background to the study was concern that the RAE, in dividing academic activity into subject-based Units of Assessment, did not provide an appropriate framework for the assessment of interdisciplinary work.

The key finding of the study is that there is no evidence that the RAE systematically discriminated against interdisciplinary research in 1996 and hence no requirement for major structural changes to the RAE in 2001. Interdisciplinary research is pervasive throughout higher education with around four fifths of researchers engaged in at least some interdisciplinary research.

Despite this welcome conclusion, the report highlights an issue about the perception of the RAE. While, in the main, around 70% of Heads of University Departments and researchers believe that the RAE is having little or no effect on the ongoing development of interdisciplinary research, around 20% believe that it is an inhibitor. Furthermore, this minority concern appears to have unduly influenced general perceptions of the exercise. What is demonstrated by the report is that, despite the perception of researchers, the RAE does not discriminate against interdisciplinary research and that, given the pervasive nature of interdisciplinary work, clearly has not hindered its development.

The report identifies a particular concern about the assessment of work where institutions chose to split researchers in a department between panels or sought cross-referral of their work from one panel to another. It is important to recognise that these so called "boundary critical" submissions did not necessarily result from involvement in interdisciplinary research. The report also notes a degree of inconsistency between assessment panels in their treatment of interdisciplinary research.

There are five specific recommendations in the report for improving the RAE process for 2001. All have been accepted and are being, or will be, implemented for the exercise. The Guidance on Submissions, for example, contains a specific section on interdisciplinary research detailing the measures which are being put in place. Similarly, all panels are being required to set out the criteria and methodology which they will employ in assessing interdisciplinary research.

Some press coverage of the report has presented a distorted view of its conclusions by focussing on, and misinterpreting, certain points. A detailed analysis of this issue is available on request.

Further information is available from John Rogers (0117 931 7237; j.rogers@hefce.ac.uk) or Anita Jackson (0117 931 7260; a.jackson@hefce.ac.uk).

[ Supplement: Press interest in the report ]

Last updated 20 August 1999

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