Should all public-funded bodies be subject to a research excellence review?

Phil Ashworth and John Lewin explain why the Environment Agency should be submitted to the REF

January 7, 2016
Rain, flood, water, weather

The recent tragic and costly floods in the UK are no surprise to scientists. They have forecast the increased incidence and magnitude of flooding with uncanny accuracy since the groundbreaking Foresight Future Flooding report in 2004. As the inevitable reviews, recriminations and denials swirl around the recovering nation, we ask: should all public-funded bodies, including the Environment Agency, be subject to the same research excellence review process that we are judged by in higher education institutions?

After all, it is taxpayers’ cash, and we all strive for excellence and value for money. It could go like this:

Non-departmental public bodies (known as NDPBs) such as the Environment Agency will submit up to four outputs of activity that show evidence of originality, significance and rigour. It is expected that outputs would be peer-reviewed by at least two external experts, and that all forms of output would either have a Digital Object Identifier (DOI) or be lodged as a physical artefact at the Review Warehouse.

Fortunately, since the Review Warehouse and the Head Office of the Environment Agency are both in Bristol, the costs for initial delivery to the warehouse, that should be borne by the submitting institution, will be negligible. A digital portfolio of output/design or a scale model is acceptable.

Read more: Aberystwyth’s surge into action to keep students safe from storm

A statement on the vitality and sustainability of their research environment will also be required. An overview must include a plain English explanation and justification for the labyrinth of different organisations and structures that report to, through and alongside the Environment Agency.

If a flow chart is necessary, the framework should be condensed to less than three pages. A research strategy is required, including a short-term vision on how to react to the next year of inevitable flooding in the UK. Metrics on income earned by the Environment Agency in open competition must be included and demonstrable evidence provided to prove that flood defences on average prevent £8 in future flood damages per £1 spent.

A description of the staffing strategy is encouraged, including how the communications staff promote clarity and transparency in press releases and media engagement. Evidence of contribution to the discipline may be included so long as individuals have shaped agendas rather than been hauled in to explain actions to a Commons Select Committee or National Review.

Finally, there will be a series of Impact Case Studies for every 10 staff submitted that contribute to the public output of the Environment Agency (at 50 per cent staff entered that means about 550 case studies).

Impact Case Studies will be judged as to their reach and significance, together with benefits to society, the economy, the environment and quality of life. Case studies will be considered only if the underpinning activity is of at least internationally recognised quality. Evidenced impact must have occurred during the census period (ie, caused an identifiable change and benefit within five years), and testimonials from end users (ie, the public) should be scrupulously documented and archived.

The resulting quality profile will determine the budget settlement allocated to the Environment Agency – but only “world-leading” and “internationally excellent” (4- and 3-star) performance will count in the funding algorithm. The grade point average for all NDPBs will be tabulated, and rankings will determine the performance-related pay for senior executives.

This all-encompassing, external review of public-funded body output, performance and impact will be called the Government Resilience Rendition Review (Grrr). It will take place every five years to coincide with the time frame suggested by the Future Flooding report and the Government Committee on Climate Change.

The Grrr has to be light-touch, use appropriate metrics that evidence performance, and must maintain peer review as the core assessment method. The review must cost less than £250 million, although it will, of course, rely on a (poorly paid) army of Grrr administrators, managers and impact officers.

What a wonderful opportunity for Lord Stern of Brentford to increase the reach of his impending review of UK university research. He will be able to demonstrate to the government and taxpayer that he satisfies the goal set by the universities and science minister, Jo Johnson, to “ensure the government gets the most return from its investment” of public funds.

Phil Ashworth is a director of research and development at the University of Brighton, and John Lewin is an emeritus professor in the School of Geography and Earth Sciences at Aberystwyth University.

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