readers not overly familiar with the heady world of research funding, and the
plethora of acronyms it has spawned, the Research Excellence Framework (REF) is a periodic assessment of research in
every five years or so, it requires universities to submit evidence and examples of their
research, the ‘real world’ impact this research has had (there are 7,000
case studies available
online) and the environment in which the research is produced.
submissions are evaluated by panels of experts, who then rate the overall
quality of the submissions. The outcomes of this exercise (most recently
conducted in 2014) are then used to allocate nearly £2 billion each year in ‘quality-related’
(or QR) funding for research to universities across the UK.
So getting the
process right really matters.
have long been arguments about the cost and burden of the REF and its
relative benefits. There
have also been concerns about the impact that the process has on individual
academic careers and academic culture more generally. The stakes are high, and
many have argued that this places an unfair burden on individuals and
This is the
context in which Lord Stern’s review was launched in December 2015. His group was tasked
with sketching out a new approach to the REF, ‘focusing on a simpler, lighter-touch
method of research assessment, that more effectively uses data and metrics
while retaining the benefits of peer review’.
Coming so soon
after Professor James Wilsdon’s comprehensive report on the role of metrics in research assessment, there were concerns that this was an
attempt to reach a different conclusion and push the sector towards a purely
data driven exercise.
fears were misplaced.
group has tried to balance the many different interests at play, proposing an evolution of the
existing approach (albeit with some significant highlights) rather than major reconstructive
surgery. The important role played by the REF and QR funding in supporting the
excellence of UK research is recognised alongside the costs of the process – to
people as well as university finances.
the review sets out is broadly in line with what Universities UK called for in our response to the call for evidence in April, with
one significant exception.
On balance, we
concluded that universities should retain the ability to select staff to
include in the exercise, whereas Lord Stern proposes that all research staff
should be returned. This, he argues, should help mitigate some of the less
desirable consequences of the exercise while retaining its valuable features.
This will no
doubt create challenges – not least the potential to hugely increase the number
of staff and therefore outputs being evaluated, which risks increasing the
burden on the evaluation panels if not managed sensitively – and work will need
to be done to fully understand the impact of this proposal.
Yet even here,
in this more contentious area, the language is nuanced and the review leaves
many questions unanswered, which is no bad thing. There is significant scope
for the community to work with government and funders to help shape the implementation
of Lord Stern’s vision, which should be welcomed.
sector is facing a challenging time, and it is important that our institutions
are given clarity and certainty wherever possible. Hopefully, through the
engagement of the whole sector, the framework set out by Lord Stern can help