Drayson says REF will give points for public outreach

Hefce is taking note of Government's new view of academic performance. Zoe Corbyn reports

July 9, 2009

Researchers have received confirmation that they will be rewarded for engaging with the public in the forthcoming research excellence framework, raising the prospect of funding being linked to articles for newspapers or television work.

Lord Drayson, the Science Minister, made an explicit commitment to the contentious proposals during a debate in London last week.

Speaking at the World Conference of Science Journalists, he said the Higher Education Funding Council for England had been told to find a way of delivering the plans.

He said the Government was "changing the way" it judged academic performance because it took the agenda of public engagement "very seriously".

"We believe that scientists have a duty - particularly when they are funded by taxpayers - to engage in the public arena, to engage in communication of the challenges and the potential ethical concerns about their science, and that will be included in the REF," he said.

Speaking to Times Higher Education after the debate, he said there was no question that a public engagement component would be included in the system to replace the research assessment exercise as the principal means of distributing quality-related research (QR) funding, and that it was down to Hefce to work out the detail.

"We have indicated that we would like Hefce to incorporate this. What they are doing now is thinking about the most intelligent and effective way to make it happen," he said. "It is their job to figure out the right way for the assessment to be made."

Lord Drayson acknowledged that developing a mechanism for the REF was "a big question to get right", but he added that public engagement "needs to be encouraged".

"If a scientist does a great job in this area, (it is important) that it is recognised in the assessment because at the moment we don't have any way of showing that this is regarded as an important component of what being a scientist is about," he said.

The Science Minister may have nailed his colours to the mast, but the proposals are likely to remain contentious among those who believe that funding should be more concentrated on research quality.

However, Lord Drayson stressed that participation in public-engagement activities would "remain voluntary".

The main aim was to "encourage the next generation" of scientific leaders to engage, he said. He stressed that the activities that could be rewarded under the REF would be wide-ranging. He gave examples of interacting with the media, taking part in debates and being willing to "stand up and talk about science".


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