Closing credits roll for the Sweeney show in UK research policy

Retiring Research England executive chair reflects on REF, impact and open access

September 8, 2022

When David Sweeney retires as Research England’s executive chair next month, he will have encountered his 11th science minister since taking one of the most significant jobs for university-based research in 2008. Only a few of these politicians will have exerted the same level of influence on UK research as the mathematician over the past 14 years.

Some might wonder if that is overstating the importance of the head of the funding body, which distributes most of its £2.5 billion annual budget based on the independently decided results of the Research Excellence Framework.

But this view would overlook the central role that Mr Sweeney has played in shaping the last two REF exercises that have, to a large extent, decided what type of research is rewarded and funded in UK universities, and where it takes place. His reforms include the introduction of a research “impact” measurement from 2014, now accounting for 25 per cent of overall score.

It also ignores his success at Research England and its predecessor, the Higher Education Funding Council for England, where he was director for research and knowledge transfer, in preserving the quality-related funding tied to the REF – a difficult task when some ministers have their own ideas about where £2 billion a year in research funding might be better spent, rather than handing it straight to universities.

In this sense, Mr Sweeney’s lobbying on behalf of universities has been crucial. “He is a powerful character with strong opinions, but he always really cared about the good of university-based research,” Lord Willetts, the former universities minister, told Times Higher Education.

That said, the Research England head has also been clear-eyed about criticisms of university research that might have led to the REF’s gradual demise. Shortly after the 2008 exercise, he pushed for impact to be included as an evaluation measure, heading off grumblings that many outputs deemed outstanding by REF peer review failed to register beyond the walls of academia.

While many still reject that claim, Mr Sweeney’s push for impact’s inclusion in the REF has helped secure its future, believed James Wilsdon, professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield, who called him a “smart and creative force for good in UK research policy and funding”.

“At the height of the Cameron-Osborne austerity drive, there was a serious threat to the quality-related funding (QR) line, so the fact that we’ve come through that period and seen real-terms uplifts in QR over the past couple of years is a tribute to David’s tireless, tactical and occasionally maverick role in championing UK research and his wily effectiveness in navigating the corridors of power,” said Professor Wilsdon.

For his part, Mr Sweeney said the introduction of impact case studies had been crucial in making the argument for university research. “It has shone a light on universities and their research in a way that wouldn’t have happened without it,” he told THE.

“Virtually every country in the world is now taking some note of impact [when assessing research],” he added, noting too that the impact agenda had also been important in addressing more recent criticisms that universities were not engaged enough with their local communities.

Perhaps surprisingly for a statistician, Mr Sweeney has also resisted calls to use more bibliometrics in the exercise – a move some claim would lead to almost identical funding decisions while saving millions by streamlining peer review. “The role of the statistician is to know what you can measure [with statistics] and what you cannot,” he parried.

Mr Sweeney’s powerful influence in steering the UK sector towards open-access research is a key part of his legacy, helping to set up the Finch report in 2011, which later laid down the “unanswerable” principle that “results of research that has been publicly funded should be freely accessible in the public domain”. As UK Research and Innovation’s lead on open access, Sweeney was also influential in ensuring the funder was an early supporter of Plan S, the Europe-wide open access drive, while UKRI’s own policies, which took effect in April, pushed requirements further. “The Finch report was significant and moved the dial on open access but without this global collaboration we won’t be able to move the system further,” he reflected.

It is hard to name an aspect of UK research where Mr Sweeney hasn’t had some input: last December, he handed some £30 million to universities to improve research culture, while £3 million was earmarked in 2020 to help the country’s 30,000 university technicians and £5 million was unveiled last month to connect researchers and industry.

“These are relatively small amounts of discretionary funding but, whether it is helping international engagement by funding UUK International or supporting technicians, Research England can play a role,” he said. “Our role is to create a space for people to talk together and share their views with government, and occasionally some helpful funding,” he said.

Mr Sweeney may reject any notion he has been quietly – and helpfully – pulling the strings of the many science ministers over the past decade and a half, but others in the know may disagree.

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