Higher education Green Paper: what it means for research

Much is to be decided on who will distribute research funding, but a metrics-based ‘mini-REF’ may raise eyebrows, says David Matthews

November 6, 2015
Uncertainty ahead

Those looking for clarity on how research funding will be distributed in the future will be disappointed by this Green Paper. A chapter on “reducing complexity and bureaucracy in research funding” gets just five pages of a report more than 100 pages long, and raises almost as many questions as it answers.

Some certainty is offered. The next research excellence framework will be held before 2021. There were discussions about reducing the REF burden by holding it once a decade, rather than every six years, and eyebrows were raised when the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) delayed consultation on the next exercise, but continuity appears to have won the day.

There is also continuity on the broad structure of funding. Some in the sector had also wondered whether the government might do away with quality-related (QR) funding, which is distributed by Hefce on the basis of the REF results, in favour of competitive grants from research councils. But today’s paper contains plenty of reassurances that this “established and respected” dual-support system will continue.

But less clear is who will dole out this money. If Hefce goes (the report talks about “a landscape without Hefce”), someone else will have to distribute QR. One option, says the Green Paper, is to continue to have a separate body dish out this funding. Or, more radically, the paper postulates  “delivering dual support through an overarching body that brings together Research Council functions with management of institutional research funding for England”.

In other words, all state research funding would be distributed from a single source. One of the questions the paper asks universities is: “what safeguards would you want to see in place in the event that dual funding was operated within a single organisation?”

To be fair, the government can’t be too firm about its plans yet because it is still awaiting the results of a review by Sir Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society, into the seven research councils. His recommendations “will be a critical input alongside responses to this consultation”, the paper says. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has said that the Nurse review will be released before the end of the year.

Even so, it seems that the government is set on a more joined-up strategy between QR funding and research council grants. “If there were separate bodies we would expect much closer strategic and operational co-operation between them,” the paper says. But it also acknowledges that without proper safeguards, this risks the very separation of QR and grant funding that it says is a “significant contributor” to UK research excellence.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the paper, from a researcher’s point of view at least, is buried near the end, where it suggests “making greater use of metrics and other measures to ‘refresh’ the REF results and capture emerging pockets of research excellence in between full peer review”.

In effect, the paper is proposing a kind of “mini-REF” between the main assessments using criteria such as the number of citations a paper receives. But measuring research quality using metrics – as opposed to peer review, which is how the REF is run – is controversial. “No set of numbers, however broad, is likely to be able to capture the multifaceted and nuanced judgments on the quality of research outputs that the REF process currently provides,” concluded The Metric Tide, a recent government-commissioned report on using metrics.

If the main REF relied on peer review but the mini-REF on metrics, they might not be seen as comparable. If some peer review were used in a mini-REF, then this would likely thwart another stated aim of the paper: to “minimise the administrative burden the system imposes on scientific and research leaders”. 

Update: 10:45am

This morning I spoke to James Wilsdon, professor of science and democracy at the University of Sussex, who chaired the group that wrote The Metric Tide. He met with Jo Johnson yesterday to discuss the Green Paper. His view is that “we are going to lose some stuff, quite valuable stuff” if the UK switches from a peer review to a metrics-based system of assessment.

“Having looked at the question of metrics in exhaustive detail…I for one, and my committee are not persuaded that there’s an easy solution here in moving overall from a peer-review process to a metrics process,” he told me.

There are three main drawbacks, he explained. Metrics generally look at research submitted to journals (where it garners citations, retweets, downloads and other measurable things), but a not insignificant amount of the research submitted to the 2014 REF was not from journals. This is particularly true of music and arts colleges.

Second, he thinks that metrics will struggle to capture the impact of the research, a key concern of Conservative ministers. And third, there are concerns that it might not be possible to pursue priorities around equality and diversity with metrics – for example, citation practices can be gendered, he points out (for example, men are more likely than women to self-cite, research has found).


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