Swinnerton-Dyer realised that some form of quality control was needed. He focused on the medical and laboratory-based subjects: they were where the serious money was spent and where the opportunity for payback in the national economy was greatest. These were also disciplines in which it was relatively easy to devise an assessment mechanism. Scientific research advances through the publication of new findings in peer-reviewed specialist journals, some of which are more prestigious than others. Research papers are usually relatively short. It would not be too arduous an exercise for universities to ask their scientific researchers to submit their best papers to panels of experts in each discipline, who could come up with a ranking on the basis of which funding could be redistributed. A further ambition was to reward links with industry, in order to stimulate applied research, but this was abandoned in the face of the ivory tower mentality of the older universities. It smacked too much of the sort of thing that went on in polytechnics.
Fatally, though, the civil servants in the Department of Education could not resist the temptation to apply Sir Peter’s proposal across the board. Thus the Research Assessment Exercise (“RAE”) was born. It has dominated academic life ever since, shaping not only publication patterns but also promotions, football-style poaching of superstars, changed teaching patterns and the rooting out of supposed dead wood. Every few years, there is a new RAE in which panels of professors sit in judgement on a set number of publications by every “research-active” university employee in the land. Each department gets a grade and a commensurate amount of funding until the next exercise comes around.