RAE 2001: undesirability of having separate Biochemistry (UOA 12) and Biological Sciences (UOA 14) units of assessment

Both before the 1996 RAE, and in response to the previous RAE 2001 consultation, the Biochemical Society urged the Funding Councils to remove the separate Biochemistry UOA, and to split Biological Sciences into Cell/Molecular Biosciences and Organismal Biosciences, as for the teaching reviews. But the current proposal in the consultation paper (RAE1/98) is to retain UOAs 12 and 14 unchanged.

The Society's position is based on the principle, enunciated by the Funding Councils, that closely related research themes and subjects should be submitted to the same UOA and be assessed by the same panel. Many biochemistry research groups are now part of larger multidisciplinary schools or research groups. In addition, the Biological Sciences UOA explicitly includes subjects such as molecular biology, cell biology, biophysics, biotechnology, and molecular genetics, all of which have a strong biochemical basis. We believe that the principle cannot be achieved by maintaining a separate Biochemistry panel under these circumstances.

Before the 1996 RAE the Society warned that on the current pattern, much of the country's biochemistry would be submitted to the Biological Sciences panel, which would have an enormous workload and would not have the breadth of expertise to judge the submissions satisfactorily. In the event, only 17 departments, mainly high quality large research groups, submitted under Biochemistry. The Funding Councils commented on this trend in their analysis of RAE 1996, but without proposing any response. In his report to the Funding Councils, Professor John Coggins, chairman of the 1996 Biochemistry RAE Panel, considered it unsatisfactory that that panel was not directly involved in the assessment of the majority of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology research. He argued that there is a very strong case for having a single over-arching panel looking at biology, biochemistry, and biotechnology since there are no longer well-defined subject barriers in these fields. Professor Coggins promoted the idea of a number of sub-panels with the chairpersons sitting together on a single Biological Sciences panel. The Biochemical Society cannot understand why this recommendation was not followed up by the Funding Councils.

The Biochemical Society recently contacted Heads of Department at all 17 institutions that submitted to the Biochemistry Panel in 1996 and asked them to respond to the following questions:

  1. Would you favour
    1. retention of the existing panel structure
    2. the creation of a single Biological Sciences panel encompassing biochemistry
    3. the establishment of two panels divided as for teaching assessment i.e. Cell/Molecular Biosciences and Organismal Biosciences
  2. If there is a separate Biochemistry panel in RAE 2001, will you expect to submit your research to it again.

To date, 12 departments have responded. Not a single department indicated that its preference would be to retain the existing structure with separate Biochemistry and Biological Sciences panels. Most preferred the concept of separate Cell/Molecular Biosciences and Organismal Biosciences panels, although a single Biological Sciences panel with a set of sub-panels for different subject areas (as suggested by Professor Coggins) was also supported. The majority of the respondents indicated that if the present structure were retained, their departments would feel obliged to submit to Biochemistry again in order to flag a strong research presence in this preeminent discipline.

The Biochemical Society is not aware of any body that argues for the retention of the present panel structure. It urges the Funding Councils to reconsider, even at this late stage, the units of assessment for RAE 2001. The Biochemical Society and the UK Life Sciences Committee would be pleased to collaborate with the Funding Councils in determining the overall view of the biosciences community as to whether option b) above (with appropriate sub-panels), or option c) would be the preferred arrangement.


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