A REF conundrum

For those who have read any of my previous posts, you’ll know that I’m not a fan on the Research Excellence Framework (REF2014). I’ve blogged about the negative impact of REF before. Essentially, although it may aiming to do something quite reasonable, the way in which it is aiming to do this, and the impact it is having on the way universities are behaving, seem very negative to me. I did, however, think of something particular that I thought I would blog about here.

Basically, each university department in the UK will submit – to be assessed by the relevant REF panel – 4 refereed journal papers from all, or some, of their academics and research fellows. Each paper will be scored as either 1*, 2*, 3*, or 4*. The amount of money that the university will then get will depend on the average score and the number of people submitted. It’s still not quite clear if it’s better to submit fewer people, so as to get a higher score, or to simply submit as many eligible people as possible. However, I believe that someone cannot be submitted if they don’t have 4 refereed journal papers published between January 2008 and October 2013.

Here’s where I thought there could be a possible issue. Consider the situation in which there is someone in a university department who is the primary author on 4 refereed journal papers that are probably okay. They will probably score 3*. Imagine there is a second person in the same department who is the lead author on only 3 papers, but they’re fantastic papers and will probably score 4*. This second person, I think cannot be submitted to REF. However, if they happen to also be an author on one or more of the first person’s papers, one of these papers could be transferred to the second person who now has 4 papers (one scoring 3* and the others potentially scoring 4*). If this paper has 10 or fewer authors, the second person’s contribution does not even need to be justified. If it has more than 10, there would need to be some narrative explaining the second person’s contribution to the paper. The first person can now no longer, however, be submitted to REF.

In some sense, the fact that the first person can no longer be submitted to REF doesn’t matter. Individuals aren’t actually assessed. It’s simply that a subset of their papers are used to assess the research quality of a university department. However, an individual must be associated with each set of 4 papers. It’s in the department’s interest to submit the strongest set of papers. The first person is, however, someone who was not formally submitted and so this could disadvantage them (in a career sense) if people at their university don’t realise why. Also, if such a scenario were to occur, should the first person (and second I guess) approve the strategy. Is it acceptable for a university department to simply decide who should take credit for a particular paper? What if the first person objected and insisted that their 4 papers (which are good but not fantastic) be submitted to REF and refused to allow the department to transfer one of their papers to someone else?

I’m not sure if the above scenario is at all likely. I do think, however, that there will be situations (where more than one person in a department is an author on a paper) in which a decision will have to be made as to who should be credited with a particular paper and that it may well go to the person who played the less significant role. Given that individuals are not actually being assessed, it is logical that the optimal set of papers be submitted. However, it is an interesting issue as to whether or not it is acceptable for a university department to decide on who gets credit for a paper. Given that someone objecting to this strategy would disadvantage their department, I suspect that most will be largely happy with this. It does, however, seem to be something that could create some difficulties.

100th post

So this is my 100th blog post. Seems a little circular to write a blog post about it being your 100th blog post, but anyway. I wrote my first post on the 18th July 2009. I started partly because blogging seemed like an interesting thing to try and partly because I’d outed a friend who had been blogging anonymously but whose posts made it obvious who they were. In fact, they’d linked from their blog to their own twitter feed so I’d assumed that they were were no longer anonymous. The slight look of shock when I mentioned their blog made me feel somewhat guilty and I thought I would try anonymous blogging partly to give them a chance to get their own back on me. It hasn’t happened yet.

This blog hasn’t been particularly popular. To date I’ve had 7983 views and 80 comments (quite a few of which are my own). My busiest day was 15 December 2009 when there were 1233 views, 985 of which were for the post STFC: Investing in the future?. This post has now had 2238 views, more than a quarter of the total. The sudden increase in views gave me such a fright, I didn’t sleep very well that night. In theory, one writes a blog for others to read, but it was still quite a shock when so many visited the blog on that day. It didn’t last; the number of daily views quickly dropped back to about 10.

The next most popular post is one I wrote about The Gini coefficient. Although I’m a scientist and started this blog partly because I was regularly following other science bloggers, my post are often quite political. This wasn’t my initial intention and, I think, is because I get more worked up about political issues than I do (apart from the STFC funding crisis) with science issues. Also, there are plenty of other very good science bloggers out there. I have also tried, unsuccessfully possibly, to bring a little bit of rigour to my posts. I find it very frustrating when the rhetoric surrounding some political issues doesn’t match the information available. Two examples are the AV vs FPTP issue and the NHS privatisation. AV vs FPTP was particularly annoying in that the FPTP supporters were being (in my opinion at least) rather economical with the truth.

Anyway, I’ll probably keep blogging. I don’t know where this will go in the future. I’ve remained anonymous, for no really good reason. It’s hard to change once you’ve started. I also don’t actually know how anonymous I actually am. I haven’t told anyone but have made a few slips when commenting on other blogs, so some may have worked it out. If you do know who I am, I won’t be annoyed if you let me know, but may look a little shocked.

NHS and privatisation

I watched The Big Questions on BBC this morning and found myself getting more and more worked up by the views of those supporting privatisation in the NHS. I find that I can’t watch BBC Question Time because I just so annoyed I then can’t sleep. The Big Questions has a similar effect on me, but at least it’s in the morning.

There are two aspects to the involvement of the private sector in the NHS. One is that private sector companies could supply services to the NHS, the other is that the NHS itself could take on private sector work. It is the latter that some would like increased to a maximum of 49% of any NHS trust’s work. The main argument in favour of increasing private sector involvement in the NHS is that the current model is unsustainable, largely because we have an ageing population. This may indeed be true, but it’s not obvious that more private sector involvement is the solution.

The argument for the private sector providing services for the NHS is that it will be more efficient and competition will drive down costs. Given that the private sector needs to make a profit, it would need be significantly more efficient in order to provide the same level and quality of service for less than the NHS can do itself. The evidence for competition driving down costs appears to be slim (look at healthcare in the US) and so it doesn’t seem clear to me that this argument makes sense.

The argument for the NHS taking on private work is that the profit can then be used to fund the rest of the NHS. This is where I would really like someone to explain the logic of this argument. Currently we spend less than 10% of GDP to provide healthcare to the 62 million people in the UK. It has been suggested that the ageing population and other factors will lead to increased costs and that, therefore, we need a new model (in fact, it was suggested that using public funding for this would lead to a degrade in our credit rating and hence extra borrowing costs).

Let’s imagine that the NHS takes on private work and uses the profit to fund these extra costs. Assuming that we want to maintain the current quality and level of care that the NHS provides, the NHS can’t do private work at the expense of the rest of its services. Those paying for this private work will expect private rooms, good food, and excellent standard of care. This will require extra resources and will, presumably, cost more than the cost of what would be provided to a typical NHS patient (although one would like to think that the level of medical care offered to typical NHS patients is still good, just not as good as that offered to private patients). These private patients will therefore have to pay for this extra level of care and will also have to pay extra in order for the profits from this private work to fund the expected shortfall in NHS funding. This extra payment will presumably have to be substantial if it is going to pay for the funding shortfall without reducing the standard of care that the NHS provides to its typical patients.

Why would anyone willing to pay for private healthcare be happy with this model. In some sense they would be subsidising the NHS. It’s seems that this would eventually fail. The wealthy will presumably have enough clout to argue that this wasn’t fair. Furthermore, if the NHS is to provide private sector work it will have to be competitive. This means offering the service at the best possible price. How can they then make substantial profits. In a sense this seems doomed to fail for exactly the reason that many use to justify private sector involvement in the NHS in the first place.

Another issue is, why is this a better economic model. Currently we provide a good level of care to the entire population for about 8% of GDP. We believe costs will rise due to an ageing population. To solve this we want to increase private sector involvement that will not only provide more expensive care, but will also pay for these extra costs. The fraction of GDP spent on healthcare will therefore increase quite substantially (as it has in the US). I can’t see why this is a good thing. Surely we should be aiming to provide a level of care for everyone at the lowest possible cost. The more we spend on healthcare (as a country) the less there is for everything else. Providing healthcare is, in my opinion, a wealth creating endeavour. However, spending too much on healthcare can damage our wealth creating abilities. Also, why do credit ratings agency care where the money comes from. If providing healthcare in the UK is going to cost 12% of GDP (rather than 8% as it does today) why does it matter if it is all through taxation, or if some is through taxation and some through patients paying privately. Given that the latter will probably costs more, surely providing through taxation is a better economic model as it reduces our total healthcare spending and frees up money for other wealth creating endeavours.

Private vs public (again)

I got a little riled this morning by a comment at the bottom of Zoe Williams’s article about privatisation of public sector services. I thought the article
was excellent and asked some insightful questions. It seems that a significant fraction of the new private sector jobs are simply jobs created by the outsourcing of public sector jobs, in which case we’ve essentially saved nothing (or more correctly, these new private sectors jobs don’t indicate any real private sector growth).

The comment that annoyed me was this one which is essentially the fallacious argument that the private sector creates wealth and public sector soaks up wealth. It’s complete nonsense and I’ve blogged about this before. Essentially, as far as I’m concerned, the primary difference between the private and public sector is that the main goal of the private sector is to make a profit while the main goal of the public sector is to provide public sevices at a cost that fits within a preset budget. Many people assume that making a profit equates with wealth creation, but it does not. Wealth creation can lead to increased profits, but increased profits does not necessarily lead to wealth creation.

If we were to provide healthcare in a manner similar to that in the US, the total cost of healthcare would increase from about £100 billion to somewhere between £200 and £300 billion (this is assuming that we didn’t simply decide to not provide healthcare for the lower half of the income distribution and to simply let poor people die when they become ill). In this scenario there would be many companies making substantial profits. If this increased spending on healthcare resulted in the UK population becoming incredibly healthy and so able to work without taking days off and allowed everyone to be more productive, the increased spending could potentially generate wealth. Judging by the typical health of an American, this seems unlikely. This increased spending would, essentially, destroy wealth. Hundreds of billions of pounds that could have been spent on food, holidays, cars, or any kind of luxury would now be spent on healthcare.

Sure, there’ll be plenty of healthcare companies making substantial profits but essentially they will be providing a healthcare system similar to what we have today for 2 to 3 times the cost. Essentially my argument is that wealth creation requires efficiencies and it needs to be relative to previous costs. We need to work out how to provide services at the lowest cost that doesn’t damage quality. The public sector is a crucial part of this process as it provides education, healthcare and infrastructure that allows the private sector to then go and make their profits. Wealth creation is about more than simply making a profit and it’s time that people started to realise how important the public sector is in providing a foundation for wealth creation.