Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Eyes on the Prize

Prizes are, by their nature, divisive. For every fan of 12 Years a Slave, there’ll be someone who swears that The Wolf of Wall Street was a better film and should have won the Oscar. Or Dallas Buyers Club, or Gravity. There might even be people who hold a candle for Philomena. Possibly. So I knew that introducing a research prize at the university would be controversial.

The idea had originally come from an academic. The university had a suite of prizes already, from teaching to green impact and from enterprise to student participation, but there had never been any for research. This, the academic said, was perverse. If we were serious about research, we should have been highlighting and rewarding excellent work.

I felt he had a point, so together we set about drafting a prize scheme.
We didn’t want to be too prescriptive about the criteria for assessment; we recognised the need to be fairly open to a range of metrics. However, we did feel that early-career researchers and doctoral students should be given their own dedicated prizes, that submissions should be decided by a cross-faculty panel of academics who could rise above disciplinary politics, and that there needed to be a bit of a show for the winners, with a ceremony and gala dinner. After all, what was the point if we didn’t trumpet the successes?

So far, so good. I thought the concept of a prize was fairly innocuous, and that controversy would only come with the choice of shortlist. However, the murmurs of dissent started almost as soon as we started sharing the idea with the committees and networks across the university. The milder criticism suggested there was no need for a prize, as publications and grants should be recognition and reward in themselves. Others were affronted by the whole idea, claiming that we were "infantilising" academics.

Some were more willing to engage with the idea, but questioned the parameters of the prizes. How could we compare humanities apples with sciences pears? What evidence would we ask for? What time frame would we use?

These were legitimate questions. I thought that other universities must have faced similar issues, and hoped that I could take a shortcut to a satisfactory end point by borrowing from them. But when I asked around the Association of Research Managers and Administrators, only eight institutions said they had tried launching anything resembling a prize.

This puzzled me. Prizes seem to be a simple, relatively cheap way to highlight excellent projects. Was the dearth of prizes down to others not ever having considered it, or was it because the idea had been spiked at an early stage for being too infantilising?

As a result, it feels like we’ve been ploughing a rarely trodden field. And in this, our 50th year, it feels like a good time to be doing so. It’s like we’ve been handed a hall pass to experiment. We could be riding for a fall, but I think (or hope) that the scheme plays to the imagination of academics and researchers at the university. I hope it starts debates about what makes good research, and gets people questioning the shortlist. It may make people angry, but it may also get them thinking about research, and talking about it in the cafes and common rooms across the campus: questioning, praising, condemning—but never forgetting—research. And that can only be a good thing.

Details of the University's Research Prizes scheme, with a deadline of 19 January 2015, are available here.

This article first appeared in Funding Insight on 7 October 2014 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit

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