How interdisciplinary research will be treated in REF 2021

The interdisciplinary advisory panel spent 18 months debating the best way to define and assess interdisciplinary research in the REF. Now it’s up to the research community to decide if we are right, says Athene Donald 

March 21, 2019
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Over many years I have frequently felt – with regard to grant applications in particular – that interdisciplinary work has not always been treated equitably. Thus, when asked to chair the 2021 research excellence framework’s interdisciplinary advisory panel (IDAP), I felt that it was not an invitation I could refuse. 

The community deserves to know that any submissions to the next REF exercise will be treated fairly, whether identified as mono-, multi- or interdisciplinary, or whatever other label the authors wish to attach. 

The Stern Review had highlighted the issues faced by interdisciplinary research in REF 2014; the job of IDAP was to make sure that the review’s recommendations were fully considered, alongside others, and a workable scheme and set of criteria drawn up. These new criteria are now finalised, alongside all the others; time will tell both whether the community is satisfied and whether the panels and sub-panels likewise feel that satisfactory processes were put in place for their evaluations.

Over the past 18 months of IDAP’s work, ideas have been batted backwards and forwards, at our panel meetings and in meetings with main panel chairs. Some ideas had traction for a little while and then withered while others came to be seen as central. I believe that in the end the criteria and processes that we have developed, alongside relevant definitions, should give the community the confidence that submissions involving interdisciplinary research will be neither favoured nor disfavoured. Our work can only be regarded as successful if this confidence is achieved.

The main issues for interdisciplinary research obviously arise around outputs. I think everyone was happy that where interdisciplinary research underpinned impact case studies in the last REF, problems had not arisen. Indeed, many impact case studies were clearly highly interdisciplinary. 

There has been no sense or concern that anything might be different this time around. The environment statement offers scope for interdisciplinarity to be discussed, but there is no metric associated with it to raise concerns. (We considered some possible metrics and were not satisfied that any of them were robust enough to be useful.) 

Crucially, we wanted to agree on a clear definition of what interdisciplinary research was – and wasn’t – and how it might be distinguished from the established route of cross-referral. To define interdisciplinary research so that it satisfies all possible manifestations, for any combination of disciplines (or none, where some research is so novel and emergent) is no mean feat, but I hope that we have come to a conclusion with which people will be content.

The second strand of our work related to how the actual assessment should be carried out. Stern recommended that “champions” should be created. We weren’t comfortable with this because we felt that nomenclature conveyed the wrong message. Interdisciplinary work should not need championing by individuals, it just needs to be judged fairly. We have therefore recommended that each main panel should have at least one member with interdisciplinary experience, and each sub-panel two people identified as interdisciplinary advisors. 

To support these people in their work, a network of all interdisciplinary advisors, across all sub-panels, has been created, with whom IDAP will interact as sub-panel work unfolds. As issues arise, as uncertainty about procedures and normalisation may occur, this group will provide a forum for discussion and support. A meeting of IDAP with the interdisciplinary advisors has already occurred (although perhaps later in the criteria-setting phase than was ideal) and such meetings will continue throughout the evaluation phase.

It is too much to hope that everyone will be satisfied with what we have set in place. No doubt critics will highlight complexities that we missed or feel, still, that interdisciplinary research is disadvantaged. Equally, others may feel that by creating a brand of interdisciplinary advisors somehow an undue advantage is conferred on interdisciplinary research. Time will tell whether we made a good fist of our task. However, I hope that we have at least moved on significantly from the issues that were clearly present in REF 2014 and removed the worst of them.

When I set out for my first meeting with the (then) Higher Education and Funding Council England team, this was a daunting task to take on. Even more when IDAP first met; I wondered how well we would pull together across all areas of research to be able to come up with common definitions and processes.

In the end I felt that the whole team worked extraordinarily well together to find our way past the undoubted problems we faced. I hope that the community feels that we did a good job!

Dame Athene Donald is professor of physics at the University of Cambridge and chair of the research excellence framework interdisciplinary research advisory panel.

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