Will REF ‘portability’ plans hobble early career academics?

Concerns that Lord Stern’s proposals for REF 2020 will adversely affect ECRs are misplaced, argues Dame Athene Donald

July 30, 2016
Female academic career progression
Source: iStock

Most people seem to think the Stern review of the research excellence framework (Building on Success and Learning from Experience) has done a fine job, with (if my Twitter stream is to be believed) the exception of the issue of the portability of outputs.

The interpretation being put on it is that this will somehow disadvantage early career researchers. I am rather baffled by this sentiment, possibly because I remember a world before the very first research assessment exercise. This was a world in which there wasn’t a hiring frenzy in the lead-up to some artificially constructed deadline. The academic world back then did not possess the equivalent of a football transfer window. People did not have to work out the pros and cons of throwing their hats into the ring only within this window to try to move to a permanent position, potentially thereby giving up a thriving postdoctoral experience at an inopportune moment. Since the opportunity for such a move did not arise only once every five years or so, they could choose the right time to suit their own trajectory. (In fact, in those far-off days, there were practically no permanent jobs on offer at all, but that’s a different tale.)

So, for someone such as myself with a long memory, the idea that work done in one place that can’t be ported to somewhere else (which, by the by, had done nothing to support the work in question) would somehow disadvantage an early career researcher seems somewhat baffling. The fear seems to me to be tantamount to saying that early career researchers have no confidence that, having done one superb piece of work they will ever be able to do another at their new place of work. Why? Work done prior to a job offer will surely have fed into the fact that the job offer was made, but why should the new institution get the credit for it? And why should the move hinder them continuing to prove what excellent scientists they are, whether this is counted this time around or in some future exercise?

It has also been suggested that hires of early career researchers won’t be made if prior work can’t be credited to it, since hiring them may do little to burnish their new institution’s reputation. I don’t understand this either because, even if they are appointed too soon before any deadline to make much of a contribution in their new role, if institutions only need to submit an average of two outputs per person then by extrapolation some can submit none. People can indeed be regarded as research-active yet have no outputs submitted and there won’t be an institutional penalty, at least in a department of more than a handful of researchers. Instead, just as individuals can throw their hat into the permanent job-market stakes at a time that works for them, so can institutions hire at times that suit them and their overall turnover of staff at all levels. Instead of having a wave of hiring and then in essence a job freeze for an extended period, they will be able to see a better spaced-out supply of new blood.

Many of the people expressing concern will not have first-hand experience of the sort of game-playing that some institutions have engaged in in the past, games that satisfied the letter of the eligibility criteria but most certainly not the spirit. When I sat on the physics panel for the research assessment exercise 2008, there were some egregious examples of institutions that hired a number of eminent overseas scholars for a few weeks (literally) around the census date so that their publications could be “claimed”, regardless of where the work was actually carried out or what contribution these scholars made (if any) to the wider good of the institution. The rules made such staff inclusions admissible. However, panels did have the option (and in some instances did so) of marking down the institution under the environment heading, since such transient members of staff really could not be credited with much input into the departmental ethos. I am much happier with a system in which credit is given to the organisation where the work is carried out.

Furthermore, there are other aspects of game-playing that we can hope departments will cease to attempt to play. One of the most important of these will be a removal of the stigma associated with who is not included, since everyone whose role incorporates research will have to be submitted. This should lead to a much more inclusive and less divisive environment for all. I believe this will be particularly the case for those whose personal circumstances in REF 2014 had to be declared and investigated, however sensitively. Raising one’s hand and saying something along the lines of “I’ve been off sick with depression for two of the past five years and working part-time for the rest, so please can I have my necessary outputs reduced?” cannot have been comfortable for the individuals concerned. (Here I would add the caveat that I think there should be a distinction made between those who are “research-active” and those whose job description includes research, a distinction that I don’t think the Stern review actually makes. If this distinction is not made, I believe there will still be scope to exclude individuals because a head of department chooses to declare that they are not “research-active”, which would again be counter to the spirit of the proposals and lead to stigmatisation.)

Of course, the devil will be in the detail, as it always is. Precisely what the average number of outputs stipulated has to be to provide the best measure of a department’s strength will be one such thorny detail. How to arrive at the appropriate headcount of who is in the final figures may also be a challenge: how do you count individuals who retire during the census period, for instance? Or is it just the FTE headcount on an arbitrary date that matters? However, I for one welcome the removal of portability as likely to lead to fewer abuses than the model it replaces.

Dame Athene Donald is professor of experimental physics at the University of Cambridge, and master of Churchill College, Cambridge. This post originally appeared on her blog.

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Reader's comments (3)

The problem with reviews like Stern is that the group doing it is packed with the "good and the great" and those in high administrative positions. The voice of those effected is hardly heard since all they do is accept facile institutional responses and hold a few rather meaningless focus groups. It is also the case that "Proposal 3" stops game playing by individuals (who are clearly "rent seekers") but just replaces this with "rent grabbers" (i.e., the institutions). It is hardly unexpected that a committee packed with VCs would want to capture the rents associated with those pesky faculty wanting to be paid for their IP. And who more easily exploited than those at the bottom of the food chain. Rest assured that those failing to meet their REF quota will find themselves either on the breadline or pushed into teaching positions so that they do not count. Under the old rules at least they could move someplace else.
I also have a hard time seeing how this doesn't just create a new set of rules to be gamed, with power having largely been shifted from individuals to institutions. Of course the institution where the work was done should get credit, but I can't see how the net effect of this won't be a pre-REF hiring freeze (don't bring in anyone you won't get credit for) and a purge of research contracts (to shift people who are seen as underperforming off of the REF books and on to teaching contracts before some arbitrary deadline). If units had to/got to share outputs (eg. both got credit: one for producing great researchers, the other for hiring them) then you might see a decline in gaming, but as long as one unit 'wins' and another 'loses' money because of single individuals then I don't see how this is a real improvement. The work I do today, three years after leaving my first institution, is still profoundly informed by (and collaborative with) that unit. Shouldn't they still get credit? Shouldn't everyone passing through an institution in a five year period count to make every hire count?
The discussion about portability is tackling the wrong problem. We aren't in academia for the money. And moving institutions is a great upheaval for many people. Most colleagues who have left have done so because they weren't getting sufficient recognition or opportunities at their current institution. So if the problem is lousy management by university managers, then how will this improve matters? I was turned down for a promotion after the targets were shifted, even though I was one of few submitted to the REF. Hence my loyalty of 10 years has been severely tested. Why should I be punished by making my CV less attractive? I think this proposal has implications for restriction of practice and should be strongly fought against.