Evaluation finds rising number of world-class researchers

New Zealand’s latest evaluation of research in tertiary institutions has recognised more researchers, more women, and more academics working at the highest levels.

The quality evaluation for the Performance-Based Research Fund (PBRF) was conducted last year and the results, published this week, will be used to allocate more than NZ$1 billion (US$668 million) in research funding over the next six years.

It assessed thousands of academics’ research and their contribution to the wider research environment.

It concluded that 7,408 full-time equivalent (FTE) academics were performing at a high enough level to attract PBRF funding for their institutions, 1,000 more than at the previous assessment in 2012.

They included 1,168 FTE researchers who achieved the A category, meaning their work is world class. The top-ranked researchers accounted for 16% of the total, up from about 13% in 2012.

The largest numbers of A category researchers were in engineering and technology with 103 A researchers, psychology with 70, and the biomedical field with 64.

The Tertiary Education Commission’s analysis of the results said 43% of the funded researchers were women, up from 39% in 2012. However, women were less likely to receive the top A or B research categories than men.

The PBRF is open to all institutions that offer degrees and postgraduate qualifications and the vast majority of the graded researchers come from the eight universities. However, 14 polytechnics or institutes of technology, 12 private institutions and two wananga or Maori tertiary institutions also won funding.

New Zealand’s largest university, the University of Auckland, had the most A researchers and will receive 28% of the funding allocated on the basis of the quality evaluation.

But Victoria University of Wellington had the best average score for the concentration of active researchers in its teaching and research workforce.

Victoria University of Wellington Vice-Chancellor Grant Guilford said the results showed the university had a higher proportion of academics doing high quality research than anywhere else in the country.

“The benefits of this are passed on to our students and are seen in the contributions we make to improving the social, economic and environmental wellbeing of the world around us,” he said.

But not everyone was happy with the results. The Tertiary Education Union said the quality evaluation should not be run again.

“Initially the performance approach increased the emphasis on research in tertiary institutions,” the union’s president Michael Gilchrist said.

“But after four gruelling rounds of individual assessments those benefits are well past. All that remains are the negative aspects: high compliance costs and administrative overheads; a six yearly treadmill for staff; intrusive processes; gaming of the system and misuse of results.”

Gilchrist said the fund was also distorting what was researched.

“The imperative to publish in a select few international journals has caused a marked reduction in specialised and locally based research,” he said.

The PBRF quality evaluation has run four times since it was introduced in 2003.