In the UK, we’ve just got the results of the Research Excellence Framework, successor to the Research Assessment Excercise, and the method that the state uses to disburse a very large amount of public money. Nobody is sure why the name was changed from “exercise” to “framework”, but since you can strap a person to a frame and then compel them to submit to sundry indignities, the change seems apt. The point of the REF is to measure the quality of research done at a particular institution and to give more of it, indeed most of it, to the departments that have produced the best work. It also has other effects, such as moving universities up and down in various league tables, and doing the same for their constituent departments. One further effect of those movements is to get university managers sharpening knives and threatening to close departments and sack individuals. It is all very unpleasant.
You would hope, then, that an exercise so fateful for the lives of academics and for the distribution of public money would measure what it is supposed to measure. No doubt there is some relationship between good research and REF scores, but there are also significant problems. One of these is that people are incentivized to produce research that will meet with the approval of the assessors and that this may have a conservative effect on disciplines, which also, thereby, become more disciplinary towards the heterodox. Another is that the rules for inclusion may be constructed in such a way that research that redounds to the credit of one institution may have been done somewhere else entirely. This has, in the past, resulted in a transfer market for “high fliers” and the payment of salaries to them which may have restricted entry-level opportunities. When this happens in the UK, we’ve effectively had a near zero sum game between institutions which won’t have done much to improve the overall quality of research done. The other issue has been the question of how to include people with fractional appointments in the assessment. This time, anybody employed on a 0.2 contract (that is, effectively one day a week) could be submit the same number of “outputs” to the exercise as a full-time employee. Although the inclusion of such a person would only increase the staff numbers eligible for “QR” funding by 0.2, their papers and books would still raise the average score of the department as if they counted for one, and this average, multiplied by the staff numbers, will benefit them financially. And, of course, such a department would rise higher in the league table than its comparators, with possible ill-effects for the displaced.
Of course, there may be perfectly good reasons to offer top American scholars 0.2 contracts at UK universities. They may improve the environment, be of service to graduate students, and so on. I’ve been assured that such were the reasons the University of Birmingham employed Paul Boghassian (NYU), Hartry Field (NYU), Kit Fine (NYU), Allison Jaggar (Colorado), Stephen Neale (CUNY), Susanna Siegel (Harvard), and Ralph Wedgwood (USC) in its Philosophy department. Still, when the BBC publishes a league table saying that “most world leading research” in Philosophy in the UK is done at Birmingham, one might think that claim a misleading one.
I’m also puzzled, given the effects on the disbursement of public money, why no UK university sought to challenge the 0.2 rule in the courts, to seek judicial review, given its perverse consequences.