It is hard to exaggerate the hold that the research excellence framework has over UK academia.
It is, quite simply, the single biggest influence on the way that universities operate. It dictates the behaviour of both academics and managers. It is blamed for shameless game-playing, crazy transfer markets, for sowing division, encouraging exclusion and spawning layer upon layer of bureaucracy.
It is expensive and unloved. It is also widely believed to have improved the quality of UK research.
So for those who breathe the REF-polluted air of university corridors, Lord Stern’s review is almost as sensitive a subject as his previous inquiry into the economics of climate change.
The recommendations, published last week, have largely been well received, and the full details are set out in our news pages.
Perhaps the most contentious issue he addresses is whether credit for research should reside with the person who did it, moving with them when they change jobs, or with the university where they were based at the time the work was carried out.
In previous exercises, the credit moved with the academic. Stern wants this to change, in the hope of ending the wheeling and dealing immediately before REF deadlines.
For the academics concerned this feeding frenzy is a boon. There are big pay days on offer, and in our news pages this week we report on a study that shows that a cynical approach to pre-REF recruitment, with the inevitable inequality it creates within departments, does pay off from a university perspective. It also chimes with the sense that researchers are working for themselves (or, perhaps, for their field) rather than for their institution.
Stern’s suggestion, then, that credit should stay with the institution where work was carried out will cause ructions. It’s not only established professors who may worry: early career researchers have also raised concerns about the impact of such a change. But the reality is that the REF has always been an institutional – rather than individual – review, and he’s right to address the indisputable excesses of the transfer market and game-playing (the suggestion that all staff be submitted to the REF 2020 should help to achieve the latter goal too).
Some seem to think that Stern’s proposals will result in no one moving job ever again, but the more likely shift is that hiring will happen much earlier in the REF cycle to allow outputs to be built up.
It’s also the case that no amount of rejigging will abolish the targets and spreadsheets culture that now exists in research management. Stern might be accused of wishful thinking if he believes that a new approach to REF submission in 2020 – including everyone but allowing greater flexibility in the number of outputs required from individuals – will suddenly mean that everyone has time for labours of love such as The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
But his review offers a road to a better REF: one that should more accurately reflect the best research departments, be more inclusive for academics, and less burdensome for administrators. If it doesn’t change the climate, at least it promises to improve the weather.