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Interdisciplinary Research and the Research Assessment Exercise

Report from the Joint Department of Health / Higher Education Funding Council for England task group on Health-related Research and the Research Assessment Exercise

(Task Group 1)

1. Background

The operation of the last Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) had raised a number of concerns about its operation in respect of health-related research, and the impact of its funding decisions on universities carrying out such work. The Department of Health / NHS and the HEFCE agreed to set up Task Groups to address these two concerns.

2. Generic Changes in the RAE

After the 1996 RAE the four funding bodies for UK higher education published a consultation paper on the future of research assessment, Research Assessment: Consultation (RAE 2/97). Following that consultation, the funding bodies published a joint circular (RAE 1/98) which announced key decisions for the framework and operation of the next RAE in 2001, and consulted further on issues of detail.

Whilst many of the generic changes to the processes of the RAE will benefit the assessment of health-related research, some more specific concerns remained.

3. The Task Group on Health-related Research (Task Group 1)

The DH and HEFCE established a Task Group on health-related research in the RAE (see Annex 1 for Membership of the Joint Task Group). This Task Group was charged with reviewing how the RAE might deal with DH and NHS interests in respect of health-related research in relation to units of assessment, criteria for assessment and membership of assessment panels. It was also asked to consider whether special measures were required to appropriately assess research of direct relevance to the health-service, particularly in rapidly developing and strategically important areas such as primary care and health services research. The Terms of Reference are set out at Annex 2.

This Task Group met twice in Spring 1998 to agree its terms of reference, consider papers and develop proposals that could be consulted upon. These proposals were published in a consultation paper Health-related Research and the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE 3/98; which is to be found on the HEFCE website: www.hefce.ac.uk) in August 1998; responses were submitted by October 1998. The consultation was open, but responses were mostly from institutions with undergraduate or postgraduate medical schools.

4. The Process of Consultation

In addition to the published document asking for written responses, the Task Group also set up a number of consultation meetings during the summer of 1998. The Task Group met again in November 1998 to consider responses to consultation paper RAE 3/98 and the views expressed at the consultation meetings.

5. The Outcomes of Consultation

The Task Group had made a number of specific proposals on which it sought views. The responses to key issues (see Annex 3 for a Summary of the Issues) addressed by consultation document RAE 3/98 are summarised below:

  • Are sub-panels an appropriate way to address many of the concerns previously expressed about the assessment of health-related research? Of 61 responses, 61% in favour.
  • If so, should any of the main panels still be reconfigured? Of 44 responses, 59% in favour. Majority support that this should be considered post-2001 in the Fundamental Review of the RAE.
  • Should sub-panels be created to advise the panel on ratings for sub areas within a submission? Of 37 responses, 73% in favour.
  • Should sub-panel scores agreed by the main panel be made publicly available? Of 40 responses, 80% in favour.
  • Should the sub-panel scores agreed by the main panel be considered in the allocation of funding? Of 36 responses, 72% in favour.
  • Are the proposed changes sufficient to ensure appropriate assessment of research that is directly relevant to the health service? Of 39 responses, 62% in favour.
  • Will the changes take rapid account of rapid development of many of these research areas? Of 24 responses, 67% in favour.

Responses showed considerable support for the proposed changes but some important representative bodies had reservations about the practicality of developing sub-panels. HEFCE will be taking forward the proposals in the light of these responses (see Annex 4 - An Update on HEFCE’s Progress after Task Group 1).

6. Next Steps

After discussion, the Task Group agreed:

  • that there would be benefits to HEFCE if the task group remained active until February/March of next year when the panels and sub-panels will begin their work, since they could be consulted further by the Funding Councils
  • to carry out a small amount of further work to provide advice to panel chairs, including on the membership of panels and sub-panels.

7. Conclusions

The Task Group has been a considerable success - both in its ways of working and in making progress on key issues.

Since the HEFCE and the Department of Health would welcome strengthened links and arrangements for co-operation between the two organisations, this should be pursued in future discussions between senior officials.


  • Annex 1 - Membership of the Joint Task Group on Health-related Research

  • Annex 2 - Terms of Reference for the Joint Task Group

  • Annex 3 - Summary of Issues from the Consultation Document

  • Annex 4 - HEFCE Update on Progress after Task Group 1

Last updated 20 August 1999

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