Insulating Cable

I haven’t written any posts for quite some time.  I did start quite a few, but always seemed to lose momentum rather quickly.  I have, however, noticed that the number of people looking at my page has increased slightly (from almost nothing to a few, to be honest) in the last day or so and wondered if those who visited were expecting some comment on Vince Cable’s recent speech.

I  should be annoyed by his speech, but really can’t bring myself to be too worked up about it.  It seems to be a typical example of a simplistic sense of how we should fund research.  John Butterworth’s Life and Physics Blog (that I’ve only just noticed is being hosted by the Guardian) illustrates this wonderfully well with a post called Conducting Cable.

I will, however, make one comment about the speech and how it can misrepresent things. Vince Cable mentions that only 54% of UK research was assessed (by RAE2008) to be “world leading” or “internationally excellent” and therefore that 45% was not excellent and should therefore not be funded. At first glance, this seems reasonable. However, the way RAE2008 worked was that all researchers who were included in the submission had to submit their 4 “best” papers published (or at least in press – I think) since 2001. These papers, together with other measures of esteem, were assessed, not the individual researchers. An individual researcher could have – for example – one paper that’s regarded as “world leading”, two that are regarded as “internationally excellent” and one that is ranked as “internationally recognised” or “nationally recognised” (i.e., not excellent). The 54% therefore essentially refers to the percentage of papers (or more accurately, research activity) submitted that were regarded as excellent, not the percentage of researchers or indeed of research projects (I’m being slightly simplistic as other factors were also included in the assessment). It is, therefore, possible that more than 54% of research projects funded lead to a paper that is regarded as “world-leading” but also result in a number of papers that don’t have much impact. Maybe we shouldn’t publish as much as we do, but maybe this is just a consequence of trying to build towards something that will have lots of impact and be “world leading”.

I guess the point I’m trying to make is that, in principle, the idea of only funding excellence is reasonable. The reality, however, is that trying to identify excellence is difficult and there are pockets of excellence everywhere and a large fraction of researchers probably do some amount of excellent research. As it is, the current success rate for STFC grants is probably worse than 1 in 5 so (if grants last 3 years) less than 60% of researchers are funded at any one time. With the coming cuts, it could easily end up being more like in 1 in 10, with only 30% of researchers funded at any one time. Hard to believe that only 30% of researchers deserve funding. Will have to wait and see – maybe it won’t be as bad as we fear.

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