As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, a fundamental value that I hope we can subscribe to is excellence. Meaning what? If you scroll back to the earlier blog, we define this as sharing an intrinsic desire to be the best. But what does it mean to be the best? If you are a sportsman or an athlete this is quite easy – you come first in the 100 metre sprint, you come first in the Great North Run, or you outperform every other team in a given competition (alas not in the case of the England football team for a couple of years at least ūüė¶ ).

Conversely, defining what it means to be the best in our business is more difficult. ¬†So, if we take research for example,¬†there is more than one race that we could potentially win.¬†This could be research income per full-time equivalent, for example, or it could be the value of research awards in a given year, or it could be an outputs driven metric such as the number of peer reviewed publications per FTE. Despite the various ‘games’ that institutions can (and do) play every five years or so, and despite the many groans when ‘that time’ comes around again, I would argue that performance in the Research Assessment Exercise (now the Research Excellence Framework – REF) is the ‘gold standard’. Leaving aside whether the enormous cost in time to prepare for this exercise represents good value¬†for UK PLC, it is difficult to argue that other measurement methods of research quality and power are of similar rigour. Looking at first-placed institutions in units of assessement of relevance to SAgE in RAE 2008, many (but noticeably not all) achieved a grade-point average (GPA) greater than 3, and assuming that our competitor institutions will not have been standing still in the interim, I would argue that we need to aim at least as high in order to claim excellence. That’s not to say that we will achieve this in every instance – that would be an impossible aim – but I would hope that we can claim excellence in some areas.¬†¬†

These aspirations come however at a price. Almost invariably, we will need to work considerably outside our respective comfort zones in order to stretch our abilities. Note that the value that we cherish is a desire to be the best. In other words, while we can’t necessarily be the best across the board right now, nothing will stop us from aiming for this goal – it is hopefully this challenge that makes us want to get up in the morning.

So am I suggesting that one can’t claim to be excellent in research without a high GPA score? Controversial perhaps, but yes, I believe I am – because excellence is a relative term – it means equal to the best. ¬†After all, the REF score is based strongly on research outputs, and whatever one’s view of the REF exercise, I don’t believe it is unrealistic to expect a researcher to find four excellent publications at a rate of less than one per year.

Excellence in research is a pre-requisite, given that we are a Russell Group Institution, to¬†¬†fuel our research informed teaching agenda. It is also critical to support our ambitions as a Civic University. Our efforts to ‘make a difference’ in the world will be hollow words without striving for underpinning excellence in everything we do. We need to put ourselves in a position, for some of our disciplines at least, where external stakeholders will beat a path to our door in the knowledge that Newcastle has the best people in the business.

So how are we doing? We’ve just completed the second internal quality exercise for the Research Excellence Framework, and shortly we will be in a position to show a ‘snapshot’ of our current performance en route to the REF census next year. Watch this space!


About stevehomans

Professor Steve Homans is a structural biologist with an international reputation in the study of biomolecular interactions. He obtained his first degree and DPhil in Biochemistry at Oxford University, and secured his first academic position as Lecturer at the University of Dundee. In 1998 he received the Zeneca award from the Biochemical Society and was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Prior to his current appointment he was Dean of the Faculty of Biological Sciences at the University of Leeds. Professor Homans brings extensive expertise of academic leadership and management, with a particular emphasis on organisational change.
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