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’Pointless’ university studies to be weeded out by new government panel - The Guardian, 23 septembre 2009

mercredi 23 septembre 2009, par Mathieu

Changes to government funding may force academics to prove that their inquiry has real-world relevance

Pour lire l’article sur le site du Guardian.

The government is to stop funding "pointless" university research, forcing academics to prove that their academic inquiry has some relevance to the real world, funding chiefs will announce today.

Universities will have to show that their research influences the economy, public policy or society in order to secure the biggest research grants, the government’s funding body for higher education said.

The plans are contained in proposals for a new system of allocating £1.76bn in government funds for academic research every year called the Research Excellence Framework (Ref). Lecturers warned that the move would restrict academic freedom by preventing speculative "blue skies" research.

It comes as the government exerts extra pressure on universities to focus on work that has demonstrable economic benefits. It also follows criticisms of some academic work ranging from the gender politics of Tarzan and Jane to surf science and "David Beckham studies".

From 2012, each university department will submit evidence to be rated, with 60% of marks awarded for the quality of their research as judged by academic panels, 25% according to the "impact" the research makes and 15% according to the quality of the department. This will rate the department’s research strategy, staff and postgraduate development and engagement with the public.

The move aims to counter the previous system that involved universities hiring star academics at the last minute to boost results, a system seen as akin to the football transfer season.

The plans include a U-turn on an earlier suggestion that the ancient system of peer review – whereby panels of professors rate standards of research – be scrapped in favour of more quantifiable measures, such as the number of citations of papers by other academics and the value of research contracts. Sally Hunt, the general secretary of the University and College Union, criticised the plan.

She said : "Academic research should never be at the behest of market forces. History has taught us that some of the biggest breakthroughs have come from speculative research and it is wrong to try and measure projects purely on their economic potential."

A spokesman for the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce), which set out the plans for consultation, insisted the system would reward the impact of academic research for arts and humanities subjects as well as science and technology.

David Sweeney, the director for research at Hefce, said : "The Ref will recognise and reward excellent research and sharing new knowledge to the benefit of the economy and society, and will ensure effective allocation of public funds. It will encourage the productive interchange of research staff and ideas between academia and business, government and other sectors."