Its great to be Number 1, but…

By - Wayne Linklater 02/05/2013

No1 (trimmed)I’d reply, ‘Awesome!’, ‘Wonderful’, ‘Pretty damn good’, ‘Deserved’, but no one has asked. I understand why no one asks. Gloating is seldom encouraged.

But that is how it feels to be Director of New Zealand’s highest ranked university centre for applied ecology

… in the leading Ecology, Behaviour & Evolution research group

… at the number 1 university for research in New Zealand?’


CBRE duel logo (trimmed)The Tertiary Education Commission’s evaluation of university research performance was released last month. It determines how our universities will be funded for the next 6 years – the Performance-based Research Fund (PBRF). Victoria University did extremely well.

But then… ‘So what?’ What does this ranking mean to you if you do not administer or operate in a university?

Blog 1 (synthesis centre), Picture 3Being number 1 for research in ecology means very little unless all that research and researcher talent translates into improvements in our environment that transform the quantity and quality of peoples’ lives. This is where research ‘rubber meets the road’. Who is measuring that, and how is it measured?

PBRF rankings do not measure ‘rubber-meets-the-road’ value. Individual academics’ self-reports of leadership in research, evidence for the esteem of their peers, and publication quantity and quality are evaluated by panels of fellow scientists and academics – hardly robust, independent estimates of value. Can we do better? Probably, and it would help if universities took a more active role in defining and measuring their value.

University value to the wider community has largely been defined externally and simplistically with the flourish of cyclical or pendulous government policy. The PBRF is an external definition and metric of universitys’ research value – a financial ‘stick and carrot’. The current government also wants to define our research value by its relevance for business and measures of economic return. But universities have greater and more diverse values than those, which correspond to the equally diverse communities they serve. To define and measure their value universities need to invest in their capacity to gather evidence for the value of their research in ways behavioural, medical, aesthetic, social, financial, and political. With that information comes the power to write the political agenda. Universities, afterall, can have longer-term vision than elected government.

Researchers at universities are so often reported in the media describing themselves as aimlessly curious. We delight in this characterisation of following our interests for fortuitous, serendipitous gain but, however honest and quaint, it is a poor external profile for the communities and government that we serve. They want evidence that we are relevant and important – empirical evidence. We need to demonstrate to our nation that research is much-much more than intellectual masturbation and self-congratulation, …

… and that research rankings are a meaningful metric of our value to the nation.

Oh… and did I say already? … Its great to be No. 1!