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Excellence and impact for top quality research

Excellence and impact for top quality research

This was a University of Auckland seminar, but the two invited speakers, Dr Philip Campbell (who is the Editor-in-Chief of the world's most prestigious scientific journal, Nature) and Professor Mark Ferguson (the DG Sciene from Ireland) are in Auckland this week (Thursday and Friday) for the 'Science Advice to Governments" conference hosted by Distinguished Professor, Sir Peter Gluckman (the PM's chief science advisor).

Research that is both scientifically excellent in the international setting and has significant community impact was discussed by a panel of experts in a seminar at the University of Auckland this week.

The seminar, ‘Research Impact – its meaning and assessment’ was hosted by Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research), Distinguished Professor Jane Harding and included the Editor-in-Chief of the prestigious science journal Nature, Dr Philip Campbell; the Director General of the Science Foundation Ireland, and Chief Science Advisor to the Government of Ireland, Professor Mark Ferguson; and New Zealand’s Chief Science Advisor, Distinguished Professor, Sir Peter Gluckman.

“Governments around the world are taking a more utilitarian view of their research and development investment and asking what they are getting in return for that investment,” said Sir Peter. “We have moved from the old 1960s-1980s model that accepted science for its cultural value to a more democratic model that focuses on what science is doing for the community.”

The emphasis is now on the demonstrable contribution that excellence research makes to society and the economy”, he said. ”There is also a shift in how impact is measured.”
“Academics are ranked on their performance for funding”, said Sir Peter. “Funders of research use impact assessment to determine which projects they will fund.”

Governments used impact assessment to form a view on the value proposition of investment in research and development, to identify needs for prioritisation and distribution, and to create policy for R&D systems.

“It’s important that impact assessment should occur before giving a grant”, he said. “And it’s important to change the mind-set of the researcher so they understand that they are working for the taxpayer.

He is now working on a report about how the Government can develop a process for assessment of research impact before research is carried out, and the importance of asking both qualitative and quantitative questions in funding applications.

“We need to have both a filter of impact and a filter of excellence,” he said. “We are yet to persuade every funder that the research needs to be excellent to be worth doing. That is, it has to be world class research for reputational impact,” he said.

Dr Campbell said Nature focused on a difficult balance of social sciences and humanities together with the natural sciences.

The United Kingdom is looking at impacts via its UK Research Excellence Framework and uses a grading system of research quality to distribute funding.

“In this system, impact is assessed as reach and significance and makes up about 20 per cent of the assessment,” said Dr Campbell.

Impact is assessed using a four-page statement of societal impact, which includes a summary statement, references to the underpinning research, details of the impact, uptake and dissemination or implementation of the research.

Dr Campbell said Nature had 25 fulltime professional editors, and had never had an editorial board. The editors accept about eight percent of papers submitted (after rejecting 65 percent immediately and seeking referee reports on about 35 percent).

“We are always looking for papers that make the most impact on science and our prime editorial responsibility is selection,” he said.

The Director-General of the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), Prof Mark Ferguson, said “Everything [in Ireland] is based on international peer review. It’s based on competitive international review for scientific excellence and impact.”

An application for funding from a researcher includes an impact section detailing who will benefit from the research and how will they benefit, he said.

“Review of a grant application includes at least six international peer review reports, and we only fund those that are scientifically excellent,” he said. “That’s only the top 10 per cent.”

The application then goes before an international panel of impact experts that includes no academics.

“This panel is made up of company R&D directors, heads of translational institutions, and investors in scientific technology and early stage companies,” said Professor Ferguson.
“Excellence is required via the scientific assessment of excellence and impact ranking from that assessment,” he said. “At the project conclusion we use impact metrics. We want to see people move into industry and commerce and we provide industry fellowships that fund one year in industry, anywhere in the world.”


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