The Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) was the late, unlamented process by which the UK government decided on the allocation of billions of pounds of research funding. It worked with the kind of blistering, quicksilver efficiency that one would expect of an organization with 15 main panels overseeing 67 ‘units of assessment’ and ‘sub-panels’. Departments spent untold hours preparing their RAE return, trying to figure out how best to divvy up their published papers among their academics, in order to maximize each person’s personal impact factor.

To say the RAE was reviled is putting it mildly. It was also criticized for being obsessed with things like journals’ impact factors. It’s well known by now that these are imperfect measures of scientific prowess, and they vary hugely across fields. In medicine, impact factors are typically very large, but in a more niche market like parasitology, they are low. This is not the fault of parasitologists, whose work is of enormous importance to people who suffer from parasitic diseases. But those people tend not to live in places like the USA, or Europe, or have lots of money to spend on drugs. This may go some way to explaining why work on diseases that kill a few hundred Americans tends to get cited more than research on diseases which kill a few tens or hundreds of thousands of Africans.

But enough bitching there. The RAE is dead. So what is going to replace it? Step forward the Research Excellence Framework! With the REF, the name has been updated, removing any suggestion that research is being assessed, and trendily combining words in ways which make little grammatical sense. What is an excellence framework? A framework for excellence I can just about understand, and an excellent framework as well, but not this combination.

It reminds me of a conversation I had with a senior anaesthetist some time ago. “Everybody bangs on about ‘Centres of Excellence’” he said gloomily. “I don’t know about you, but I’d settle for Centres of Adequacy”.

So how is the new system going to change things? Er, not very much at all. Those panels are up for a cull, with the number of main panels being reduced to 4 and more than half of the sub panels being cut in a way which will look good when somebody shows up to ask HEFCE what they did in the great public funding squeeze of 2009, but other than that it looks like business as usual. There has been a suggestion that rather than simply looking at journal impact factors, scientists should be assessed by asking how many times their work gets cited, rather than the average of all papers published in the journal in question. Metrics like the H index, which is the number of papers you have which have been cited at least that many times or more. So if your H index is 25, you have published 25 papers, each of which have been cited 25 times or more.

But no, apparently citation data will ‘supplement and inform’ the decisions and er.. that’s it. It’s still early days as the inevitable consultation exercise kicks off today, but it looks like those of us hoping for a transparent, open and equitable system will have to hold our breath a bit longer.