How to improve the evaluation of research activity at universitiescuadrito

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The model of accreditation and evaluation of research at universities is characterized by being overly quantitative and by not sufficiently appreciating aspects such as professional activity and knowledge transfer.

These are some of the conclusions of Rafael van Grieken, director of the National Agency for Evaluation of Quality and Accreditation(initialled ANECA in Spanish), who spoke at a seminar organized by the Interuniversity Institute for Advanced Research on Science and Universities (initialled INAECU in Spanish). The institute is a joint organization involving Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M) and the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (UAM). The seminar, where proposals to improve the system were presented and debated, was held recently at UC3M.

“The model tries to evaluate quality, but ends up being very quantitative because of the regulatory framework, the secondary or indirect nature, the structuring (of knowledge) into large areas and the obligation to express it by points,” explained van Grieken, who notes that knowledge transfer is not sufficiently appreciated in some areas while in others it is perhaps valued too much. He also remarked that professional activity is valued sufficiently, indeed essential in some fields such as biomedicine.

From the analysis of this situation, and taking the report of the experts on university reform as a reference, many issues have been raised to try to improve this system of accreditation, whose objective is to guarantee minimum standards. “Evaluation is done in a general context, in such a way that important competencies are not taken into account with the desired accuracy. At most, some evidence contributed by other organizations can be estimated. It is a criterion for minimums, not for recognizing excellence,” said van Grieken, who disclosed that work is being carried out to try to improve this system of accreditation.

The purpose of the seminar was “to help Spanish science improve, be competitive, on the basis of proposals of evaluation and of policies of incentive schemes for research activities that are more in line with these goals,” explained Elías Sanz, full professor at the UC3M and director of the INAECU. Among the agents involved in Spanish science, the institute devotes special attention to the university, and does so from several perspectives: generating, through the IUNE Observatory, rigorous information resources that are of interest to the Spanish university system, in addition to analyzing university policies that enable the establishment of methodologies capable of improving the management of their decisions.

Research at Universities

During the session, there was also a presentation of some information that characterizes research in the Spanish university system, which is responsible for 65% of science publications of impact compiled in international databases. “These databases are not too accurate for the area of Humanities and many of the Social Science disciplines, which is why, if we took into account these two big areas more completely, we would be talking about much higher percentages,” notes Sanz.

There were some 200,000 persons working in research in Spain in the year 2012 (77,000 in universities) and total internal spending devoted to R&D in Spain that year was about 13.4 billion euros (universities contributed about 3.7 billion euros). “That is,” notes Professor Sanz, “Spanish universities are responsible for approximately 65% of the international publications of impact and 34% of the human resources devoted to R&D, and it does all of that with 27.7% of the funding.”

In spite of its effectiveness, Spanish university research does not seem very encouraging. The situation is quite complicated, with decreased funding, staffs which cannot add new personnel, closed promotions and maximum teaching loads, according to professors. “It is the reality that we are experiencing and that in some way justifies redoubling our efforts to recover an institution essential for Spanish science,” states Sanz, who warns that some effects are already being felt, such as a significant drop in motivation among the teaching staff and limited success in attracting talent.

Capturing Talent

In order to contribute solutions, UC3M recently launched the first edition of the CONEX talent capture program. Its goal is to provide opportunities for professional development to experienced postdoctoral researchers of any nationality who are not residents in Spain so that they can advance their careers while they contribute their knowledge to the Spanish university science system. In this way, applicants who opt for this edition will be able to pursue their research projects for 36 months and contribute their experience in one of the university’s departments or research institutes.

The CONEX program has set the goal of offering 28 contracts of this type. In this first edition, launched on March 1st and open until May 29th, 16 researchers with experience will be chosen in three large areas of knowledge: engineering, physics and mathematics; law and social sciences; and humanities, library science and communication. Further information at:

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