“45% of grants were not of excellent standard”

Vince Cable MP addressing a Liberal Democrat c...

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In which I get all huffy about Vince Cable‘s speech at QMUL this morning & his appearance on the today program.

This morning the formerly well-respected UK Business Secretary, Vince Cable MP, spoke of impending cuts to the UK science budget. In his interview on the radio 4 today program, he said

“45% of grants were not of excellent standard.”

In his speech at QMUL, he said:

“It is worth noting in the last RAE 54 per cent of submitted work was defined as world-class and that is the area where funding should be concentrated.”

These numbers come from the Research Assessment exercise 2008. The RAE says that:

“The results demonstrate that 54% of the research conducted by 52,400 staff submitted by 159 universities and colleges is either ‘world-leading’ (17 per cent in the highest grade) – or ‘internationally excellent’ (37 per cent in the second highest grade).”

Which is obviously where Mr Cable gets his “54%” figure from, and I am guessing, the “45%” figure (I can’t find anything else that matches).
What Mr Cable fails to do, is read the next line of the RAE:

“Taking the top three grades together (the third grade represents work of internationally recognised quality), 87% of the research activity is of international quality

In stating that 45% of research is not excellent, Cable is lumping together:

  • “Quality that is recognised internationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour (2*)”,
  • “Quality that is recognised nationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour. (1*)”,
  • the 2% of assessed work that “falls below the standard of nationally recognised work.”

Research that is “recognised internationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour” is not excellent? Sounds pretty excellent to me.

Conflating said internationally recognised research with research that “falls below the standard of nationally recognised work” hardly seems fair and scrupulous.

This is cherry-picking on a par with the homeopaths, and is no basis upon which to decide funding for the already cash-strapped UK research sector.

I shall await the budget on October the 20th with one eye on the overseas science job market.

MASSIVE COI declared

EDIT – so it turns out I was pretty much right – http://www.rcuk.ac.uk/news/100908

17 Responses to “45% of grants were not of excellent standard”

  1. Andy Russell says:

    Rather than relating to publications, does the 45% refer to the number of research council grants that funded despite being assessed as less than excellent? In NERC terminology, this would be stuff that isn’t alpha 4 or 5. (I don’t know if that grading system is applied by other RCs.)

  2. draust says:

    Andy, I can’t believe that the Councils were funding stuff not rated in the top two categories. Most people in the rat-race, and indeed on the panels, tell me the problem is that tons of stuff rated up in Alpha four and five doesn’t get funded.

    Of course, that will be true of even more stuff if the cuts mean (as is surely inevitable) that funding rates will fall even further.

  3. noodlemaz says:

    This is why we need more scientists in government; it is fairly tough to understand the nature of research, publication and so on, indeed also the economics of research centres/unis/hospitals…
    But surely we should not be seeing these kinds of horrendous twisted stats coming out.

    I guess they’re going to be using whatever justifcations they can find for cutting the funding, but to attack hard-working people unjustifiably – I can’t really get my head around it.

    Seems I can’t even make a well-phrased point at the moment.

  4. Helen says:

    And what is wrong with ‘good’?

    All very odd.

  5. Andy Russell says:


    I agree, I’ve not heard of any a3s ever getting funded either. But NERC define a4 as excellent so I don’t know where this 45% figure comes from.

  6. xtaldave says:

    I still think the most likely figure to be the source of the “45%” claim, is the 2*, 1* and unclassified research as defined be RAE 2008.

    That work is all grant funded – and is not in the “excellent” 3* and 4* – and given it’s the only thing he’s directly made reference too….

  7. […] 45% figure quoted by Cable on R4 this morning might have come from. @xtaldave has an interesting blog post about how the figure might come from (a misunderstanding of) the outcome (and workings) of the […]

  8. xtaldave says:

    Little edit for those following this post – It turns out I was pretty much right – it was a play on the RAE 2008 – http://www.rcuk.ac.uk/news/100908

    Woo yay!.

  9. andyrussell says:

    Sorry if I threw you off course! Didn’t think Vince would be so wrong – getting confused between papers and grants.

    In reality, far less than 100% of “excellent” (a5 and a4) grant proposals get funded.

    Hate to say it, but Vince Cable seems a bit out of his depth.

  10. hapsci says:

    I think the comparison between him an homeopaths is a little strong. However, he is cherry picking in order to justify his budget cuts, which is a shame.

    Good work on pointing this out! I must admit when I read his speech I did wonder about that point but I don’t know enough about the system to get my head around it. I would suggest you write this as a letter to the gov to make them aware of their oversight…

    • xtaldave says:

      Maybe a little strong – but it seems he (or someone who works for him) is finding/juggling figures to support a pre-conceived conclusion – it is no different from hacking up datasets to fiddle a smidge of statistical significance.

      I suspect they are already well aware – I feel a letter to my MP coming on.

  11. Neuroskeptic says:

    There are a number of problems with this…

    1. 4* research is disproportionately concentrated in the older “research universities”. If he’s proposing cutting everything else, he is proposing massive cuts to newer unis while leaving the older ones intact.

    Now maybe that’s his intention, but if so, he should be clear about it.

    2. No-one starts out doing 4* research, they start out doing small stuff and then get better. Saying you’re only going to fund the “best” grants means in effect that you’re only going to fund established labs who already have a good track record, rather than up-and-coming researchers.

    • xtaldave says:

      Couldn’t agree more – smaller, new unis are going to be reliant on the cash they get from any 2* HEFCE handouts – they’ll perish if that money dries up.

  12. […] measures the quality of the research done in UK universities, as pointed out by Peter Coles and David Briggs (both worth reading in […]

  13. […] depends upon what the government’s definition of “excellent” is – is it Vince Cable’s 54% for example? In which case – much of UK research is for the high jump. He does make the point […]

  14. […] Recent comments by Vince Cable (Business Secretary) imply that cuts might be hard and based on a poor interpretation of the state of UK research, which is actually in pretty good health and very […]

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