Lord Stern’s review of REF: ‘stress will be eased’

Investing more in research ‘must be central to our nation’s strategy’, writes Lord Stern on the day his review of the REF is published

July 28, 2016
The UK is one of the world’s leading nations in research – second only to the US – both in terms of the quality and influence of its outputs and its efficiency in the use of resources.  
This vital strength drives economic growth and helps to foster investment in the UK. It deepens our understanding of what it means to be human, of community and relationships, of global challenges and our potential role in the world.  
Maintaining and enhancing these strengths in a rapidly changing global economy will depend on making our research resources still more productive.  

We were asked to deliver recommendations that would encourage and strengthen the emphasis on delivering excellent research and impact in the research excellence framework, while simplifying and reducing the administrative burden on the HE sector. 
Since the review was commissioned by the minister for universities and science, Jo Johnson, we have seen the publication of the Nurse review of the Research Councils, a White Paper and the introduction of the Higher Education and Research Bill. The review takes account of and complements this changing policy landscape.
The overall quality of the UK’s research in virtually all subjects and its international position have strengthened since the first research assessment exercise in 1986.  
The recommendations of the Review of the UK’s Research Excellence Framework, which we release today, build on the success of earlier assessment exercises. For the most part the recommendations are designed to tackle important distortions in these exercises and to deal with some of the cost implications.  
They are evolutionary and arise from learning about a process that is basically strong and that has delivered.  
The recommendations establish clear principles and directions for reform that we are confident can be turned into specific and detailed structures for the next REF. However, further testing and piloting may be required in the process of implementing the proposals.
The recommendations are designed to tackle specific issues that the steering group has encountered and that the research community identified through the call for evidence.
First, by including all research-active staff in the REF but loosening the link between individuals and outputs (currently each selected staff member must submit four pieces of work), the process of selecting outputs should be simpler and cheaper. 
More importantly, stress and demotivation of researchers associated with the process of selection will be eased. And these measures, taken together, will provide scope for more risk-taking, building new areas of research and supporting less experienced staff.  
Current structures may have led to conservatism in the choice of issues.
Second, by widening and deepening the notion of impact to include influence on public engagement, culture and on teaching, and by allowing the description of the impact of a body of work as well as specific research outputs, the assessment will better recognise how research has an influence on investment and decision-making and on human understanding and interaction.
Third, a new institutional-level assessment, encompassing elements of the environment and impact components of the REF, will strengthen the focus on the contributions of units of assessment and universities as a whole, fostering greater cohesiveness and rewarding collaboration on interdisciplinary activities.  
A recent report led by David Soskice for the British Academy identifies the essential role of interdisciplinary research in tackling complex, intrinsically difficult “Grand Challenges” of global importance, such as overcoming poverty and tackling climate change, and the importance of such research in some of the most creative and important ideas and discoveries. 
Fourth, the recommendations of the review will also help foster excellence wherever it is found, including in some less traditional or newer locations, by offering further emphasis on a dynamic and creative research environment, allowing recognition of the contribution of smaller groups, and a broader notion of impact.
Last, there is a need for a wider and more productive use of the data and insights from the assessment exercise for both higher education institutions and the UK as a whole.  
By the time that the next REF takes place it will be led by Research England, under the aegis of UK Research and Innovation. This new organisation will bring increased coherence and energy to research in the UK.  
A central and crucial task will be to provide a strong and strategic voice for science and research, it will also have an increased ability to deliver cross-cutting and interdisciplinary research and provide leadership for UK research and innovation. 
The recommendations recognise that government, and UKRI, could make more strategic and imaginative use of the information collected in the REF, to better understand the health of the UK research base, our research resources and areas of high potential for future investment.
We live in turbulent as well as competitive times where understanding who we are, what we can contribute, how we can be more productive, how we can collaborate and how we can bring communities and people together are of vital and increasing importance. The UK, building on its strengths and past achievements, has a vital role to play in this changing world.  
However, vitally important though it is, we must go beyond, the further enhancement of the quality of our research.  
Notwithstanding our very high productivity in this area, the UK invests much less, as a fraction of income, in research and innovation than our comparators and competitors. We have a precious national asset and source of strength and advantage: investing more in it must be central to our nation’s strategy in the coming years.
Lord Stern led the Review of the UK’s Research Excellence Framework, which was published today.

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