Perverse values and investments in REF

March 6, 2014

Claims about the cost burden imposed by “onerous” methodology for the research excellence framework (“The REF: how was it for you?”,  February) ignore the behavioural response of academics and administrators. An assessment of the UK’s research base has been taken over by a university marketing exercise. “Good enough” has no meaning if the criterion is excellence, and there is nothing that the Higher Education Funding Council for England or any other body might do to regulate the effort invested.

Barbara Pittam, of the Institute of Cancer Research, is quoted as saying that input to a funding formula does not by itself justify the assessment workload. She rightly points out that the outcome also sends signals to the Treasury. In fact, the signals go far wider: to future students and staff, to research funders and to potential partner institutions. The outcomes of the research assessment exercise and the REF are the single most powerful piece of marketing information most institutions can present to the public.

The low-cost alternatives are unacceptable. Pro rata funding for every academic has not made sense for 30 years, and there is no case for any reductionist approach to cheap and simplistic metrics.

Complaints about the REF burden are transitory compared with the complaints that any alternative would embed. If assessment is to mean anything, it needs proper input and review to deliver proper outcomes. Institutions cannot and should not be limited as to the effort they invest, so that they submit the very best possible case. The downside is that, whatever Hefce does, institutions and individual academics will invest “disproportionately” because the outcome matters too much.

Jonathan Adams
Chief scientist, Digital Science


Nicholas Maxwell is right to suggest that the impact agenda is not necessarily helpful in trying to use research outcomes positively in society (“Revolutionary thought”, Opinion, 23 January).

The REF does not encourage a judgement to be made on whether the impact that panels are being asked to assess is good or bad for society; impact is assessed only on its “reach and significance”. Impact itself is defined in the REF as “an effect on, change or benefit to…”. In other words, a benefit is only one option; any effect or change is equally acceptable. So as it stands, research that has led to far-reaching, significant and disastrous impacts on the environment, for example, should score much more highly than research that has led to a small, incremental benefit.

To assess impact in a value-free vacuum, or even to allow value judgements to be made implicitly, is truly “unwise”. If we are establishing a funding system that rewards impact, there should be some explicit consideration of what impacts we believe either have been and would be beneficial to society.

Richard Bond
Head of research administration
University of the West of England

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